14 Jan HALF AND HALF, OR HOW TO GET EVEN WITH THE BLACK SWAN (NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB)
Half the time I am a hyperskeptic; the other half I hold certainties and can be intransigent about them, with a very stubborn disposition. Of course I am hyperskeptic where others, particularly those I call bildungsphilisters, are gullible, and gullible where others seem skeptical. I am skeptical about confirmation—though only when errors are costly—not about disconfirmation. Having plenty of data will not provide confirmation, but a single instance can disconfirm. I am skeptical when I suspect wild randomness, gullible when I believe that randomness is mild.
Half the time I am hyperconservative in the conduct of my own affairs; the other half I am hyperaggressive. This may not seem exceptional, except that my conservatism applies to what others call risk taking, and my aggressiveness to areas where others recommend caution.
I worry less about small failures, more about large, potentially terminal ones. I worry far more about the “promising” stock market, particularly the “safe” blue chip stocks, than I do about speculative ventures—the former present invisible risks, the latter offer no surprises since you know how volatile they are and can limit your downside by investing smaller amounts.
I worry less about advertised and sensational risks, more about the more vicious hidden ones.
In the end this is a trivial decision making rule: I am very aggressive when I can gain exposure to positive Black Swans—when a failure would be of small moment—and very conservative when I am under threat from a negative Black Swan. I am very aggressive when an error in a model can benefit me, and paranoid when the error can hurt. This may not be too interesting except that it is exactly what other people do not do. In finance, for instance, people use flimsy theories to manage their risks and put wild ideas under “rational” scrutiny.
Half the time I am intellectual, the other half I am a no-nonsense practitioner. I am no-nonsense and practical in academic matters, and intellectual when it comes to practice.
Half the time I am shallow, the other half I want to avoid shallowness. I am shallow when it comes to aesthetics; I avoid shallowness in the context of risks and returns. My aestheticism makes me put poetry before prose, Greeks before Romans, dignity before elegance, elegance before culture, culture before erudition, erudition before knowledge, knowledge before intellect, and intellect before truth. But only for matters that are Black Swan free. Our tendency is to be very rational, except when it comes to the Black Swan.
I once received another piece of life-changing advice, which, unlike the advice I got from a friend in Chapter 3, I find applicable, wise, and empirically valid. My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, “I don’t run for trains.”
Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.
You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.
Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved (this may seem crazy, but I’ve tried it and it works). This is the first step toward the stoic’s throwing a four-letter word at fate. You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself.
Mother Nature has given us some defense mechanisms: as in Aesop’s fable, one of these is our ability to consider that the grapes we cannot (or did not) reach are sour. But an aggressively stoic prior disdain and rejection of the grapes is even more rewarding. Be aggressive; be the one to resign, if you have the guts.
It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.
In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.
But all these ideas, all this philosophy of induction, all these problems with knowledge, all these wild opportunities and scary possible losses, everything palls in front of the following metaphysical consideration.
I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.
Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don’t be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth—remember that you are a Black Swan.
The Black Swan
NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB