Author Archives: Ben Casnocha

Studying One’s Own Work for Imperfections

Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, obsessively studied his past matches, looking for the slightest imperfection, but when it came time to play a chess game, he said he played by instinct, “by smell, by feel.” After Herb Stein finishes shooting a soap opera episode, he immediately goes home and reviews the rough cut. “I watch the whole thing,” Stein says, “and I just take notes. I’m looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find thirty mistakes, thirty things that I could have done better. If I can’t find thirty, then I’m not looking hard enough.” These mistakes are usually little things, so minor that nobody else would notice. But Stein knows that the only way to get it right the next time is to study what he got wrong this time. Tom Brady spends hours watching game tape every week, critically looking at each of his passing decisions, but when he’s standing in the pocket he knows that he can’t hesitate before making a throw. It’s not an accident that all of these experts have converged on such a similar method. They have figured out how to take advantage of their mental machinery, to steal as much wisdom as possible from their inevitable errors.

From Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

Ben Franklin Didn’t Like the Choice of Bald Eagle

As a Franklin devotee, I kind of loved this anecdote. Fight on, Ben!

In 1782, after years of argument and indecision, Congress concluded that the bald eagle would make an appropriate symbol of national power and authority, and so it was decided that the bird, depicted with its wings outspread, its talons grasping an olive branch, etcetera, should be adopted as the emblem for the great seal of the United States….Not everybody agreed with the decision… Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey a better choice and considered the bald eagle—a plunderer and a scavenger of dead fish rather than a hunter, and timid if mobbed by much smaller birds—an animal of bad moral character and in fact a coward.

(From Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.)

Book Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

In 2009, I reviewed at length Mohsin Hamid’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where I noted that the book so captivated me that I spent a whole day reading it instead of exploring the Afro-Caribbean streets of Cartagena, Colombia where I happened to be at the time.

Last week, I read Hamid’s latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, lying next to a pool in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Once again, Hamid kept me adhered to my chair, as evidenced by the picture to the

It’s a rags-to-riches story of a boy who’s born in a poor village who transforms himself into a big city entrepreneur-mogul.

As a piece of writing, Hamid is masterful. His effortless use of the second person voice — rare in novels — increases the sense of urgency while reading. He can also bring characters to life with an efficient dash of a paragraph, which is how the book clocks in at a brisk 200 pages or so and yet still feels deep.

Three big picture themes especially resonated with me.

The first theme is the simple entrepreneurial hustle required in a dirty, somewhat dangerous, fast moving emerging market. The self-help structure is a parody, but effectively conveys the underlying truth which is that only relentless do-anything go-getter win in “Rising Asia.” (The namelessness of places and people – “Rising Asia” is the setting of the book, “you” the protagonist, and “Pretty Girl” the main romantic interest – permits readers to interpret its various lessons as broadly as possible.)

The second theme that resonated is the relationship between romance and careerism. The protagonist’s marriage falls apart because of his relentless focus on his career. And the real object of his sexual desires is not his wife but another girl who also happens to be obsessed with her career, and therefore stays firmly single despite an occasional hotel rendezvous together. Two careerists do not a couple make.

Third, I learned that the humanity of a person gets brought into relief from the juxtaposition of flaws and virtues. For example, in this book, the protagonist entrepreneur essentially misleads customers about the authenticity of his product; bribes government officials; hires employee based on nepotism; and commits other unethical or unwise acts. Yet he somehow maintains your sympathy throughout. Why? His flaws are rationalized with an air of reasonableness, and he maintains several other virtues besides. Real people tend to be a bundle of the good and bad and complicated shades of both all at the same time. Skilled writers direct a wide lens to capture this nuance–we see flaw and virtue together, and it reminds us of ourselves, and makes the whole story feel relatable.

This was a novel that was not easy to put down, and it will not be easy to forget.

Favorite paragraphs excerpted below.

Continue reading

Life is Not a Highlight Reel

The economist Tyler Cowen once told me a test for whether a couple can be happy in a relationship is whether they can go to a drug store together with a shopping list, pick out the right items, pay, and leave the store, without once getting in an argument. His point, as I understood it, was that when you’re in a relationship you need to get through the day to day trivia and tedium of life — such as picking up extra toilet paper at a Rite Aid — with a kind of communal contentment.

A romantic relationship is not about the “highlights” you see on Instagram or Facebook of international trips or fancy dinner parties. Those things are nice but necessarily infrequent. Most of the time is downtime, and if you can’t love the downtime, you’ve got a problem. As Kramer in Seinfeld once famously mocked, conversation with a spouse tends to be repeated discussion of very ordinary days.

Relationships, like life in general, consist mostly of ordinary moments, not extraordinary ones.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, he notes that our day-to-day lives are full of tedium. For example, suppose after you work you need to pick up some food: “You will go to the supermarket. At the supermarket you will get a cart. The cart will have three functional wheels, and one wheel that spins out all curvy in a weird direction. That wheel – and thus the cart – will drive you mad. If you let it.”

Wallace’s point: How we choose to respond to things like the supermarket cart that can’t roll straight, and the million other daily hassles, in part defines who we are.

The minimum response, I think, is to simply tolerate the trivia, in some Zen kind of way. Accept the trivia for what it is and don’t get too depressed by it. Simple, but not at all easy.

The more ambitious response, as articulated by various sages over the years, is to aspire to find sacredness in, and have compassion towards, the ordinariness around us. Even if said ordinariness seems maddening or utterly banal on the surface. As Abraham Maslow put in: “…the sacred is in the ordinary…it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard.”

Indeed, some of the happiest people I know find joy in the smallest of pleasures and find amusement in what are usually inconsequential inconveniences.

And to Tyler’s point, some of the happiest couples I know are at their best when it’s just the two of them on the couch looking at YouTube videos on their iPad, or taking their dog for a walk together.

So, as I’ve come to see it, the reality is this: For the most part, life is one damn mundane thing after another.

The choice that determines sanity is whether you let the little things drive you bonkers, or worse yet let the little things foment existential angst — or whether instead you can find a way to tolerate it all peacefully.

The choice that determines higher wisdom or enlightenment is whether you can learn toappreciate the little experiences — most of them trivial, indeed — as the precious, joyous stuff.

As the writer Dani Shapiro has noted, if you wait for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — you may just miss your life.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Sometimes I meet with a friend or acquaintance and I leave the meeting thinking, “Am I doing enough with my life? Am I taking enough risk?” Ramit Sethi once told me he loves those sorts of meetings. (I love them too, though as I’ve written, if someone is too much better than me, it’s actually demotivating.)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s film which opened on Christmas Day, is a recent example of a movie which caused me to ask questions I ought to ask myself more often: Am I being adventurous enough? Am I being bold enough? Am I trying hard enough to realize my fantasies? Why haven’t I visited Iceland? The questions popped to mind as I took in the gorgeous photography and listened to the lovely soundtrack. (The official trailer is an accurate proxy for physical beauty in the entire film.)

To be sure, most of the critics have given Mitty mixed reviews. I’m hardly a film sophisticate, and even I saw flaws in the movie.

Sure, the actual storyline/plot is so-so, but it’s good enough to make you reflect on the big questions. Because you don’t have to be a shy paper pusher who works in the basement of an office, as Walter Mitty does, to day dream. And you don’t have to be able to jump through windows or on to arctic ships, as Mitty does, in order to make real a more adventrous and perhaps authentic version of yourself.


On my flight to Hong Kong, I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film about older Brits who try to invigorate their lives by moving to a hotel for old people in India. It’s a story of seeking adventure, even to your very last day. I enjoyed it quite a bit, for reasons similar to why I liked Mitty.

Another movie I saw recently and loved was Perks of Being a Wallflower. Teen angst, high school travails, mental illness, broken romance, and a surprise ending. Deeply affecting.

Books: “Average is Over” and “The Second Machine Age”

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen was published a couple months ago; The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee will be published a couple weeks from now. I’ve read both and together they provide a persuasive account of how our economy is changing (due to technology and globalization) and who in the labor market will survive and thrive in an era where “average is over.” There are various summaries available.

For individual readers (as opposed to policy makers), you can think of the two books as prequels to The Start-Up of You. In The Start-Up of You, we provide practical advice on how to make yourself more adaptable, how to take risks, how to market yourself, how to grow your network–in a word, how to make yourself more entrepreneurial. Tyler, Erik, and Andy all assert that individuals will need to do these sorts of things to survive in a more challenging labor market, but they don’t have time to get into the details. (They focus more on the macro trends and implications, which are quite important in their own right.) So for enterprising individuals who want to understand the economy they’re living in and specific advice that should follow from this understanding, consider all three excellent books!

Q4. Done.

The fourth quarter of 2013 was a doozy. Starting in late September, life got hectic on all fronts. So hectic that I feel like I haven’t had time to reflect on all that’s been happening, or process/clarify all the ideas swirling about in my head.

Reflection and idea development happens when I write. And while I’ve been doing a lot of writing of late, I haven’t done enough on personal topics.

So one goal for 2014: Write more on this blog. Write more personally.

I’m celebrating New Year’s in Hong Kong and Thailand. Wherever you are, Happy 2014!

If You’re Hot and Smart You Can’t Be…

Many years ago, when I was writing my first spec for a software product, an engineer told me: Your software can be good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

It crystallized the idea of tradeoffs very powerfully in my brain.

Ever since, I’ve noticed the “pick two out of three” rule applies in a broad set of contexts. Tradeoffs abound when traits are inversely correlated or simply rare in combination.

Here are some other examples some friends and I came up with. Pick two out of three.

  • Products generally: easy to use, secure, private
  • Your significant other: hot, smart, emotionally stable
  • Vacations: exotic, relaxing, cheap
  • Non-fiction: original, entertaining, short
  • Meals made at home: tasty, nutritious, easy to make/cleanup
  • Shoes: comfortable, durable, stylish

And as I learned in compiling this list:

  • Blog posts: honest, politically correct, concise

Visiting the Panama Canal

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.” – David McCullough

A couple months ago, I watched a video on Bill Gates’s blog about his visit to the Panama Canal. He called it one of the Top 10 places he’s been to, and given that he’s been to a lot of places, this caught my attention. My Mom and I headed down there for a weekend to see the Canal and greater Panama City, and I’m happy to report that it is now on my Top 10 list too — even though my overall list is probably considerably shorter than Bill’s!

The flight into Panama City at night was beautiful. Out my airplane window, I saw dozens of ships lined up in the water, waiting to enter the Canal Zone. The next morning we explored Panama City. It’s the most developed city in Central America. Half of the tallest sky scrapers in Latin America are in Panama, we were told. The water is drinkable. The taxi drivers are professional and friendly. The malls are as fancy as anywhere in the world, and all the usual A-list hotel brands have outposts along a main strip. The old town is lovely to stroll around in, and it’s one the part of Panama City that does feel genuinely Latin American, so long as you ignore the eye-catching streak of sky scrappers visible across the water.


The Canal is the main attraction, of course, and it’s worth setting aside an entire day for the effort. Before going to the Canal — or even if you can’t go — read David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas. It’s the authoritative account of how the canal got built against all odds. McCullough starts by recounting the French effort to build a canal in Panama. After 20,000 French died and untold tresaure expended, the French gave up. Then he masterfully recounts the debate in America’s government about whether to attempt to build something that almost everyone said was impossible. Then he covers the actual construction, the enormous public health challenges that were overcome, and the eventual mind-blowing triumph — the most impressive civil engineering project in history.

There are so many stats about the construction and end result. Here are a few:

  • “Its cost had been enormous. No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life.”
  • With the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 to the Compagnie Nouvelle, the United States had spent more for the rights, privileges, and properties that went with the Canal Zone—an area roughly a third the size of Long Island—than for any actual territorial acquisition in its history, more than for the Louisiana Territory ($15,000,000), Alaska ($7,200,000), and the Philippines ($20,000,000) combined.
  • The Panama Canal construction cost approximately 26,000 lives. This includes lives lost during both periods of French and U.S. construction.
  • Largest overseas effort in U.S. history.
  • Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time.
  • “The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. If the United States were perfectly flat, the amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would be no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles. A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator.”

But as McCullough says, no recitation of stats could do justice to the grandeur.

To be sure, the actual visual of the canal when you’re there is not as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon, or even the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel. The canal is alive and functional — a centerpiece of global commerce — it’s not a national park or historical piece. That’s why it’s helpful to have the historical and political background to fully appreciate the impressiveness.

We went on a partial boat tour — you’re in an actual boat in the canal and you cross through two sets of locks which raise up the ship by 85 feet by pumping 27 million gallons of freshwater into the locked off area in less than eight minutes. I’m glad we were in a boat and not viewing the canal from the Miraflores Locks museum, but I’m also glad we didn’t spend the full seven hours riding across the entire canal. It’s not necessary to get a good sense of what’s happening.

As I learned about canal on the tour, I reflected on how little I knew before my trip. I cannot remember ever hearing about it in school. I remember studying the building of the Hoover Dam, and man-made flight, and entering outer space, and learning about other science achievements. Yet, even though the Panama Canal is as or more impressive than any of the above, it doesn’t seem as prominent in the history books. Most likely this because the U.S. government has blood on its hands in Panama: it seized/stole the land from Colombia in order to ensure the Canal was built, an event which kicked off a series of shameful intrusions in Central America sovereignty.

It’s worth learning more about. And given how easy it is to get in and out of Panama, it’s worth visiting in person.

At the end of the McCullough book, there’s a moving quote by John Stevens, who was chief engineer at the Canal from 1905-1907. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote soon before dying. The great works had still to come: “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean…”

Other direct quotes from McCullough’s book below.

Continue reading

Book Review: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Nassim Taleb is provocative. I’ve read all his books, and enjoyed his most recent book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the “antifragile” thesis didn’t rock my world as a general framework — I agree with it and it’s certainly novel, but I just didn’t find it41F8iht8SoL revolutionary or especially practical — the various side points and examples throughout made it very worthwhile reading overall.

My favorite 80 paragraphs below, with my favorite sentences bolded.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

It does not mean that one’s personal experiences constitute a sufficient sample to derive a conclusion about an idea; it is just that one’s personal experience gives the stamp of authenticity and sincerity of opinion. Experience is devoid of the cherry-picking that we find in studies, particularly those called “observational,” ones in which the researcher finds past patterns, and, thanks to the sheer amount of data, can therefore fall into the trap of an invented narrative.

Just as being nice to the arrogant is no better than being arrogant toward the nice, being accommodating toward anyone committing a nefarious action condones it.

A boxer might be robust, hale when it comes to his physical condition, and might improve from fight to fight, but he can easily be emotionally fragile and break into tears when dumped by his girlfriend. Your grandmother might have opposite qualities, fragile in build but equipped with a strong personality. I remember the following vivid image from the Lebanese civil war: A diminutive old lady, a widow (she was dressed in black), was chastising militiamen from the enemy side for having caused the shattering of the glass in her window during a battle. They were pointing their guns at her; a single bullet would have terminated her but they were visibly having a bad moment, intimidated and scared by her. She was the opposite of the boxer: physically fragile, but not fragile in character.

Also, it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again.

Information is antifragile; it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it.

The first-order information is the intensity: what matters is the effort the critic puts into trying to prevent others from reading the book, or, more generally in life, it is the effort in badmouthing someone that matters, not so much what is said. So if you really want people to read a book, tell them it is “overrated,” with a sense of outrage (and use the attribute “underrated” for the opposite effect).

The tradition has been to think that aging causes bone weakness (bones lose density, become more brittle), as if there was a one-way relationship possibly brought about by hormones (females start experiencing osteoporosis after menopause). It turns out, as shown by Karsenty and others who have since embarked on the line of research, that the reverse is also largely true: loss of bone density and degradation of the health of the bones also causes aging, diabetes, and, for males, loss of fertility and sexual function.

So it is often the mistakes of others that benefit the rest of us—and, sadly, not them. We saw that stressors are information, in the right context. For the antifragile, harm from errors should be less than the benefits. We are talking about some, not all, errors, of course; those that do not destroy a system help prevent larger calamities. The engineer and historian of engineering Henry Petroski presents a very elegant point. Had the Titanic not had that famous accident, as fatal as it was, we would have kept building larger and larger ocean liners and the next disaster would have been even more tragic. So the people who perished were sacrificed for the greater good; they unarguably saved more lives than were lost. The story of the Titanic illustrates the difference between gains for the system and harm to some of its individual parts.

There are hundreds of thousands of plane flights every year, and a crash in one plane does not involve others, so errors remain confined and highly epistemic—whereas globalized economic systems operate as one: errors spread and compound.

Further, my characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. These types often consider themselves the “victims” of some large plot, a bad boss, or bad weather. Finally, a thought. He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once. And someone who has made plenty of errors—though never the same error more than once—is more reliable than someone who has never made any.

In order to progress, modern society should be treating ruined entrepreneurs in the same way we honor dead soldiers, perhaps not with as much honor, but using exactly the same logic (the entrepreneur is still alive, though perhaps morally broken and socially stigmatized, particularly if he lives in Japan). For there is no such thing as a failed soldier, dead or alive (unless he acted in a cowardly manner)—likewise, there is no such thing as a failed entrepreneur or failed scientific researcher, any more than there is a successful babbler, philosophaster, commentator, consultant, lobbyist, or business school professor who does not take personal risks. (Sorry.)

We are fragilizing social and economic systems by denying them stressors and randomness, putting them in the Procrustean bed of cushy and comfortable—but ultimately harmful—modernity.

This great variety of people and their wallets are there, in Switzerland, for its shelter, safety, and stability. But all these refugees don’t notice the obvious: the most stable country in the world does not have a government. And it is not stable in spite of not having a government; it is stable because it does not have one. Ask random Swiss citizens to name their president, and count the proportion of people who can do so—they can usually name the presidents of France or the United States but not their own. Its currency works best (at the time of writing it proved to be the safest), yet its central bank is tiny, even relative to its size.

Note another element of Switzerland: it is perhaps the most successful country in history, yet it has traditionally had a very low level of university education compared to the rest of the rich nations. Its system, even in banking during my days, was based on apprenticeship models, nearly vocational rather than the theoretical ones. In other words, on techne (crafts and know how), not episteme (book knowledge, know what).

We can also see from the turkey story the mother of all harmful mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence, a mistake that we will see tends to prevail in intellectual circles and one that is grounded in the social sciences.

Some people have fallen for the naive turkey-style belief that the world is getting safer and safer, and of course they naively attribute it to the holy “state” (though bottom-up Switzerland has about the lowest rate of violence of any place on the planet). It is exactly like saying that nuclear bombs are safer because they explode less often. The world is subjected to fewer and fewer acts of violence, while wars have the potential to be more criminal. We were very close to the mother of all catastrophes in the 1960s when the United States was about to pull the nuclear trigger on the Soviet Union. Very close. When we look at risks in Extremistan, we don’t look at evidence (evidence comes too late), we look at potential damage: never has the world been more prone to more damage; never.6 It is hard to explain to naive data-driven people that risk is in the future, not in the past.

A donkey equally famished and thirsty caught at an equal distance between food and water would unavoidably die of hunger or thirst. But he can be saved thanks to a random nudge one way or the other. This metaphor is named Buridan’s Donkey, after the medieval philosopher Jean de Buridan, who—among other, very complicated things—introduced the thought experiment. When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. You can see here that absence of randomness equals guaranteed death.

the bitterness of Iranians toward the United States comes from the fact that the United States—a democracy—installed a monarch, the repressive Shah of Iran, who pillaged the place but gave the United States the “stability” of access to the Persian Gulf.

It is generally accepted that harm from doctors—not including risks from hospital germs—accounts for more deaths than any single cancer.

There is an element of deceit associated with interventionism, accelerating in a professionalized society. It’s much easier to sell “Look what I did for you” than “Look what I avoided for you.” Of course a bonus system based on “performance” exacerbates the problem. I’ve looked in history for heroes who became heroes for what they did not do, but it is hard to observe nonaction; I could not easily find any. The doctor who refrains from operating on a back (a very expensive surgery), instead giving it a chance to heal itself, will not be rewarded and judged as favorably as the doctor who makes the surgery look indispensable, then brings relief to the patient while exposing him to operating risks, while accruing great financial rewards to himself. The latter will be driving the pink Rolls-Royce.

The Chinese thinker Lao Tzu coined the doctrine of wu-wei, “passive achievement.”

If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor. I don’t mean provide him with a bad doctor: just pay for him to choose his own. Any doctor will do. This may be the only possible way to murder someone while staying squarely within the law. We can see from the tonsillectomy story that access to data increases intervention, causing us to behave like the neurotic fellow. Rory Sutherland signaled to me that someone with a personal doctor on staff should be particularly vulnerable to naive interventionism, hence iatrogenics; doctors need to justify their salaries and prove to themselves that they have a modicum of work ethic, something that “doing nothing” doesn’t satisfy. Indeed, Michael Jackson’s personal doctor has been sued for something equivalent to overintervention-to-stifle-antifragility (but it will take the law courts a while to become directly familiar with the concept). Did you ever wonder why heads of state and very rich people with access to all this medical care die just as easily as regular persons? Well, it looks like this is because of overmedication and excessive medical care.

Consider the iatrogenics of newspapers. They need to fill their pages every day with a set of news items—particularly those news items also dealt with by other newspapers. But to do things right, they ought to learn to keep silent in the absence of news of significance. Newspapers should be of two-line length on some days, two hundred pages on others—in proportion with the intensity of the signal. But of course they want to make money and need to sell us junk food. And junk food is iatrogenic.

The state exists as a tax collector, but the money is spent in the communes themselves, directed by the communes—for, say, skills training locally determined as deemed necessary by the community themselves, to respond to private demand for workers. The economic elites have more freedom than in most other democracies—this is far from the statism one can assume from the outside.

Now, what is worse, because of modernity, the share of Extremistan is increasing. Winner-take-all effects are worsening: success for an author, a company, an idea, a musician, an athlete is planetary, or nothing. These worsen predictability since almost everything in socioeconomic life now is dominated by Black Swans.

The traditional understanding of Stoicism in the literature is of some indifference to fate—among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos that I will skip here. It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition, the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck (a lot of shipwrecks in ancient texts), he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy. And the key phrase reverberating in Seneca’s oeuvre is nihil perditi, “I lost nothing,” after an adverse event. Stoicism makes you desire the challenge of a calamity. And Stoics look down on luxury: about a fellow who led a lavish life, Seneca wrote: “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.”

Success brings an asymmetry: you now have a lot more to lose than to gain. You are hence fragile.

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as a punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. Even more: dependence on circumstances—rather, the emotions that arise from circumstances—induces a form of slavery.

Let me rephrase it in modern terms. Take the situation in which you have a lot to lose and little to gain. If an additional quantity of wealth, say, a thousand Phoenician shekels, would not benefit you, but you would feel great harm from the loss of an equivalent amount, you have an asymmetry. And it is not a good asymmetry: you are fragile.

Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).

For those readers who wonder about the difference between Buddhism and Stoicism, I have a simple answer. A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says “f*** you” to fate.

This is what Seneca elected to do: he initially had a very active, adventurous life, followed by a philosophical withdrawal to write and meditate, rather than a “middle” combination of both. Many of the “doers” turned “thinkers” like Montaigne have done a serial barbell: pure action, then pure reflection.

Indeed, Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, only wrote sixty days a year, with three hundred days spent “doing nothing.” He published more than two hundred novels.

More barbells. Do crazy things (break furniture once in a while), like the Greeks during the later stages of a drinking symposium, and stay “rational” in larger decisions. Trashy gossip magazines and classics or sophisticated works; never middlebrow stuff. Talk to either undergraduate students, cab drivers, and gardeners or the highest caliber scholars; never to middling-but-career-conscious academics. If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don’t attack him verbally.

What he collected was large, perhaps not enough to make him massively wealthy, but enough to make the point—to others but also, I suspect, to himself—that he talked the talk and was truly above, not below, wealth. This kind of sum I’ve called in my vernacular “f*** you money”—a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects, such as having to attend a black-tie charity event and being forced to listen to a polite exposition of the details of a marble-rich house renovation. The worst side effect of wealth is the social associations it forces on its victims, as people with big houses tend to end up socializing with other people with big houses. Beyond a certain level of opulence and independence, gents tend to be less and less personable and their conversation less and less interesting.

The option I am talking about is no different from what we call options in daily life—the vacation resort with the most options is more likely to provide you with the activity that satisfies your tastes, and the one with the narrowest choices is likely to fail. So you need less information, that is, less knowledge, about the resort with broader options.

Sour grapes—as in Aesop’s fable—is when someone convinces himself that the grapes he cannot reach are sour. The essayist Michel de Montaigne sees the Thales episode as a story of immunity to sour grapes: you need to know whether you do not like the pursuit of money and wealth because you genuinely do not like it, or because you are rationalizing your inability to be successful at it with the argument that wealth is not a good thing because it is bad for one’s digestive system or disturbing for one’s sleep or other such arguments.

Again, this is an embedded option, hidden as there is no cost to the privilege.

Authors, artists, and even philosophers are much better off having a very small number of fanatics behind them than a large number of people who appreciate their work. The number of persons who dislike the work don’t count—there is no such thing as the opposite of buying your book, or the equivalent of losing points in a soccer game, and this absence of negative domain for book sales provides the author with a measure of optionality.

Wittgenstein, for instance, was largely considered a lunatic, a strange bird, or just a b***t operator by those whose opinion didn’t count (he had almost no publications to his name). But he had a small number of cultlike followers, and some, such as Bertrand Russell and J. M. Keynes, were massively influential.

Another business that does not care about the average but rather the dispersion around the average is the luxury goods industry—jewelry, watches, art, expensive apartments in fancy locations, expensive collector wines, gourmet farm-raised probiotic dog food, etc. Such businesses only care about the pool of funds available to the very rich. If the population in the Western world had an average income of fifty thousand dollars, with no inequality at all, luxury goods sellers would not survive. But if the average stays the same but with a high degree of inequality, with some incomes higher than two million dollars, and potentially some incomes higher than ten million, then the business has plenty of customers—even if such high incomes are offset by masses of people with lower incomes. The “tails” of the distribution on the higher end of the income brackets, the extreme, are much more determined by changes in inequality than changes in the average. It gains from dispersion, hence is antifragile.

Harvard’s former president Larry Summers got in trouble (clumsily) explaining a version of the point and lost his job in the aftermath of the uproar. He was trying to say that males and females have equal intelligence, but the male population has more variations and dispersion (hence volatility), with more highly unintelligent men, and more highly intelligent ones. For Summers, this explained why men were overrepresented in the scientific and intellectual community (and also why men were overrepresented in jails or failures). The number of successful scientists depends on the “tails,” the extremes, rather than the average. Just as an option does not care about the adverse outcomes, or an author does not care about the haters.

growth in society may not come from raising the average the Asian way, but from increasing the number of people in the “tails,” that small, very small number of risk takers crazy enough to have ideas of their own, those endowed with that very rare ability called imagination, that rarer quality called courage, and who make things happen.

Most texts define it as the application of scientific knowledge to practical projects—leading us to believe in a flow of knowledge going chiefly, even exclusively, from lofty “science” (organized around a priestly group of persons with titles before their names) to lowly practice (exercised by uninitiated people without the intellectual attainments to gain membership into the priestly group). So, in the corpus, knowledge is presented as derived in the following manner: basic research yields scientific knowledge, which in turn generates technologies, which in turn lead to practical applications, which in turn lead to economic growth and other seemingly interesting matters.

Academia → Applied Science and Technology → Practice While this model may be valid in some very narrow (but highly advertised instances), such as building the atomic bomb, the exact reverse seems to be true in most of the domains I’ve examined.

As per the Yiddish saying: “If the student is smart, the teacher takes the credit.” These illusions of contribution result largely from confirmation fallacies: in addition to the sad fact that history belongs to those who can write about it (whether winners or losers), a second bias appears, as those who write the accounts can deliver confirmatory facts (what has worked) but not a complete picture of what has worked and what has failed.

If life is lived forward but remembered backward, as Kierkegaard observed, then books exacerbate this effect—our own memories, learning, and instinct have sequences in them. Someone standing today looking at events without having lived them would be inclined to develop illusions of causality, mostly from being mixed-up by the sequence of events. In real life, in spite of all the biases, we do not have the same number of asynchronies that appear to the student of history. Nasty history, full of lies, full of biases!

shows no evidence that raising the general level of education raises income at the level of a country. But we know the opposite is true, that wealth leads to the rise of education—not an optical illusion. We don’t need to resort to the World Bank figures, we could derive this from an armchair.

Entrepreneurs, particularly those in technical jobs, are not necessarily the best people to have dinner with. I recall a heuristic I used in my previous profession when hiring people (called “separate those who, when they go to a museum, look at the Cézanne on the wall from those who focus on the contents of the trash can”): the more interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business (something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life).1 Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible—they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives. Entrepreneurs are selected to be just doers, not thinkers, and doers do, they don’t talk, and it would be unfair, wrong, and downright insulting to measure them in the talk department.

We all learn geometry from textbooks based on axioms, like, say, Euclid’s Book of Elements, and tend to think that it is thanks to such learning that we today have these beautiful geometric shapes in buildings, from houses to cathedrals; to think the opposite would be anathema. So I speculated immediately that the ancients developed an interest in Euclid’s geometry and other mathematics because they were already using these methods, derived by tinkering and experiential knowledge, otherwise they would not have bothered at all.

Coca-Cola began as a pharmaceutical product. Tiffany & Co., the fancy jewelry store company, started life as a stationery store. The last two examples are close, perhaps, but consider next: Raytheon, which made the first missile guidance system, was a refrigerator maker (one of the founders was no other than Vannevar Bush, who conceived the teleological linear model of science we saw earlier; go figure). Now, worse: Nokia, who used to be the top mobile phone maker, began as a paper mill (at some stage they were into rubber shoes). DuPont, now famous for Teflon nonstick cooking pans, Corian countertops, and the durable fabric Kevlar, actually started out as an explosives company. Avon, the cosmetics company, started out in door-to-door book sales. And, the strangest of all, Oneida Silversmiths was a community religious cult but for regulatory reasons they needed to use as cover a joint stock company.

We will return to these two distinct payoffs, with “bounded left” (limited losses, like Thales’ bet) and “bounded right” (limited gains, like insurance or banking). The distinction is crucial, as most payoffs in life fall in either one or the other category.

Seeing the nontransferability of skills from one domain to the other led me to skepticism in general about whatever skills are acquired in a classroom, anything in a non-ecological way, as compared to street fights and real-life situations. It is not well advertised that there is no evidence that abilities in chess lead to better reasoning off the chessboard—even those who play blind chess games with an entire cohort can’t remember things outside the board better than a regular person. We accept the domain-specificity of games, the fact that they do not really train you for life, that there are severe losses in translation. But we find it hard to apply this lesson to technical skills acquired in schools, that is, to accept the crucial fact that what is picked up in the classroom stays largely in the classroom. Worse even, the classroom can bring some detectable harm, a measure of iatrogenics hardly ever discussed: Laura Martignon showed me results from her doctoral student Birgit Ulmer demonstrating that children’s ability to count degrades right after they are taught arithmetic. When you ask children how many intervals there are between fifteen poles, those who don’t know arithmetic figure out that there are fourteen of them. Those who studied arithmetic get confused and often make the mistake that there are fifteen.

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom. He did not use the notion of the Procrustean bed, but he outlined it perfectly. His argument is that they repress children’s natural biophilia, their love of living things. But the problem is more general; soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality.

“What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent” is perhaps the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche’s century—and we used a version of it in the prologue, in the very definition of the fragilista who mistakes what he does not understand for nonsense.

Continue reading