I read Nasim Taleb’s books, “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Our Life and in the Markets” and “Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable“, in 2014 and 2015. I had created this post a few years ago but just noticed it was not published. His books are great and they have provided great insight. I encourage all to read his books. I updated these posts – Enjoy. Please share your thoughts when you read his work.
To me, his books explained that although hard work cannot cause success, it is a necessary ingredient. For without hardwork and preparation, success at anything is less likely. In our world, the idea of random success seems unfair and is not something one can hope to occur.
Even though we want to believe hard-work is enough, we know that our world is random. Too strong a belief in randomness and its influence over our life is debilitating. Despite this contradiction, we want to believe we can influence life even with the powerful and overpowering influence of random events. As Israel Zangwill, an English dramatist proclaimed,
“Take from me the hope that I can change the future, and you will send me mad.”Israel Zangwill – Ghetto Tragedies
Nassim Taleb provides an interesting perspective on the situation related to the idea of randomness and how it affects our lives in his excellent books. His perspective seems influenced by his work as a Trader on Wall Street.
An excellent point he explains in his books is how we are a backward looking species and our hindsight bias makes past events seem less random than they were. Our brains automatically fill in the missing pieces. He artfully explains how our biased brain works and how randomness affects us. He often cites and uses the work of Nobel prize winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky who examined how our biases impact the decisions we make under uncertainty. They concluded that life often leads us to misread reality and have “Mental Illusions”. (see Undoing Needed because Mental Illusions Impact Us).
While he documents that we are designed by nature to fool ourselves, as Kahneman & Tversky’s work has shown, we have an opportunity to tilt the table in our favor. The opportunity exists because we evolved in a much slower moving world than exists today. As he notes, this means we are more susceptible to chance BUT that we can improve our chances by being prepared like nature.
As he explains, great and extensive preparation cannot and does not cause success, but it does improve the chances for success. It can tilt the tables in our favor and improve the probability of success. From my reading, it means that although hard work to prepare cannot cause success, success without hard work and preparation is unlikely.
He further explains that, unlike nature, we do not overprepare, but should. Nature, in essence, prepares for the next occurrence by over-preparing for higher exposure. This is why nature builds redundancy with spare parts, i.e. 2 kidneys. Over preparing, as is done by nature, which we are a part, (see Updated: We are Just Talking Apes) also means we have the capacity to exceed expectations. This function by nature is also documented by Jane Benyus in Biomimicry (see Parallel NOT Linear Means Create Positive AND Prevent Negative)
Instead of building more capacity, we do the opposite by using leverage such as debt or worst case scenario preparation. As he notes, this type of testing cannot be only for what has already happened because the data for what could be worse does not exist. This becomes even more relevant with ongoing climate change. He calls this naive empiricism. As he explained, contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations (i.e. Turkey killed 1 day but all other days were ok so cannot predict).
As Yogi Berra mused:
“Its tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Some insights from these books were:
1. We are more emotional than we are rational. We can train ourselves to be more rational, reasonable, or logical; but we need emotions to be able to function effectively. Training our emotions is good but we must remember that we cannot be Spock from Star Trek because we could never make decisions without emotions.
2. Wild success is possible but we need luck. Luck however cannot happen without being prepared and being prepared takes hard work. Like Gladwell explained in “Blink” and “Outliers”, we can trust our gut to make great decisions but that gut must first be trained well – 10,000 hours to become an expert. In other words, the age old saying that hard work leads to success is only partially right. Hard work cannot guarantee success, but without the work, success because highly unlikely.
3. A final point that has stayed with me from “Black Swan” was, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of its absence.” This is something I now apply to many aspects of my life. He provides examples such as breast milk which at first they did not see it as beneficial because of what was measured. They only looked to see if problems were caused, not of benefits gained. No evidence of benefits does not mean there were none.
Nassim Taleb seems to suggest we should work to generate comprehensive improvements by working like nature. As he details, we cannot rely on randomness but can generate comprehensive improvements by creating net-positive, pervasive, reciprocal, selfish, selfless, synergistic interactions so everyone and everything benefits by over preparing. Please share how you overprepare and how it has helped. I look forward to hearing from you.
PS For a different perspective on the same ideas – see Its All Meaningless! Here is How to Create Meaning! and Making Sense of Chaos, Meaninglessness, Disorientation