This is my book summary of The Bed of Procrustes (by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the The Black Swan). Full of witty sayings and social commentary, this is a great book for starting debates on people, society, and the world in general. An instant favorite. The book is available on Amazon.
Summary notes below. All emphasis mine.
The person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself.
An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion.
To understand the liberating effects of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.
To bankrupt a fool, give him information.
Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.
Modernity’s double punishment is to make us both age prematurely and live longer.
Your brain is most intelligent when you don’t instruct it on what to do.
Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.
In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.
If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead—the more precision, the more dead you are.
There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment.
Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.
The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said.
Your reputation is harmed the most by what you say to defend it.
They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks—but rarely for your wisdom.
If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated.
Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, truces and relationships; and nothing is more temporary than “permanent” ones.
The characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan, in general terms, mankind’s flaws, biases, contradictions, and irrationality—without exploiting them for fun and profit.
Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate.
The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.
Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.
People reserve standard compliments who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling “arrogant.”
When she shouts that what you did was unforgivable, she has already started to forgive you.
Being unimaginative is only a problem when you are easily bored.
Friendship that ends was never one; there was at least one sucker in it.
Wisdom in the young is as unattractive as frivolity in the elderly.
Some people are only funny when they try to be serious.
You exist if and only if you are free to do things without a visible objective, with no justification, and above all, outside the dictatorship of someone else’s narrative.
Chances, Success, Happiness, and Stoicism
You don’t become completely free by just avoiding being a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.
Fortune punishes the greedy by making him poor and the very greedy by making him rich.
What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.
Decline starts with the replacement of dreams with memories and ends with the replacement of memories with other memories.
You want to avoid being disliked without being envied or admired.
Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convince him he is an employee.
The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich.
You will be civilized on the day you can spend a long period doing nothing, learning nothing, and improving nothing, without feeling the slightest amount of guilt.
You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.
For most, success is the harmful passage from the camp of the hating to the camp of the hated.
The difference between love and happiness is that those who talk about love tend to be in love, but those who talk about happiness tend to be not happy.
Modernism: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.
The Web is an unhealthy place for someone hungry for attention.
Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, noble, elegant, robust and heroic life.
Most feed their obsessions by trying to get rid of them.
I have the fondest memories of time spent in places called ugly, the most boring ones of places called scenic.
Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.
The 20th century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the 21st will be that of the technological one.
The Web’s “connectedness” creates a peculiar form of informational and pseudo-social promiscuity, which makes one feel clean after Web rationing.
Charming and Less Charming Sucker Problems
There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.
People usually apologize so that they can do it again.
Modernity inflicts a sucker narrative on activities; now we “walk for exercise,” not “walk” with no justification; for hidden reasons.
Social media are severely antisocial, health foods are empirically unhealthy, knowledge workers are very ignorant, and social sciences aren’t scientific at all.
Theseus, or Living the Paleo Life
The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.
My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill.
If you need to listen to music while walking, don’t walk; and please don’t listen to music.
Technology can degrade (and endanger) every aspect of a sucker’s life while convincing him that it is becoming more “efficient.”
The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.
You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.
Only in recent history has “working hard” signalled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse, and, mostly, sprezzatura.
What they call play (gym, travel, sports) looks like work; the harder they try, the more captive they are.
Most modern efficiencies are deferred punishment.
We are hunters; we are only truly alive in those moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises and stimuli from the environment.
For a classicist, a competitive athlete is painful to look at; trying hard to become an animal rather than a man, he will never be as fast as a cheetah or as strong as an ox.
Skills that transfer: street fights, off-path hiking, seduction, broad erudition. Skills that don’t: school, games, sports, laboratory—what’s reduced and organized.
For most, work and what comes with it have the eroding effect of chronic injury.
When I look at people on treadmills I wonder how alpha lions, the strongest, expend the least amount of energy, sleeping 20 hours a day; others hunt for them. Caesar pontem fecit. (“Caesar built a bridge.”)
Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health.
The Republic of Letters
Writers are remembered for their best work, politicians for their worst mistakes, and businessmen are almost never remembered.
No author should be considered as having failed until he starts teaching others about writing.
Just like poets and artists, bureaucrats are born, not made; it takes normal humans extraordinary effort to keep attention on such boring tasks.
Most so-called writers keep writing and writing with the hope to, someday, find something to say.
The Universal and The Particular
What I learned on my own I still remember.
Many are so unoriginal they study history to find mistakes to repeat.
We unwittingly amplify commonalities with friends, dissimilarities with strangers, and contrasts with enemies.
You want to be yourself, idiosyncratic; the collective (school, rules, jobs, technology) wants you generic to the point of castration.
Regular minds find similarities in stories (and situations); finer minds detect differences.
Fooled by Randomness
Unless we manipulate our surroundings, we have as little control over what and whom we think about as what we do over the muscles of our hearts.
The fool views himself as more unique and others more generic; the wise views himself as more generic and others more unique.
Medieval man was a cog in a wheel he did not understand; modern man is a cog in a complicated system he thinks he understands.
Most info-Web-media-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people’s heads.
To understand “progress”: all places we call ugly are both man-made and modern (Newark), never natural or historical (Rome).
We love imperfection, the right kind of imperfection; we pay up for original art and typo-laden first editions.
Wit seduces by signalling intelligence without nerdiness.
If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.
We are most motivated to help those who need us the least.
Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone.
Trust people who make a living lying down or standing up more than those who do so sitting down.
Don’t trust a man who needs an income—except if it is minimum wage.
Weak men act to satisfy their needs, stronger men their duties.
Ethical man accords his profession to his beliefs, instead of according his beliefs to his profession. This has been rarer and rarer since the Middle Ages.
People often need to suspend their self-promotion, and have someone in their lives they do not need to impress. This explains dog ownership.
I wonder if crooks can conceive that honest people can be shrewder than they.
The difference between magnificence and arrogance is in what one does when nobody is looking.
In a crowd of 100, 50% of the wealth, 90% of the imagination, and 100% of the intellectual courage will reside in a single person—not necessarily the same one.
For soldiers, we use the term “mercenary,” but we absolve employees of responsibility with “everybody needs to make a living.”
Robustness and Fragility
You are only secure if you can lose your fortune without the additional worse insult of having to become humble.
Nations like war; city-states like commerce; families like stability; and individuals like entertainment.
Robust is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who dislike it (artists); fragile when you care more about the few who dislike your work than the multitude who like it (politicians).
The Ludic Fallacy and Domain Dependence
Sports are commoditized and, alas, prostituted randomness.
Just as smooth surfaces, competitive sports and specialized work fossilize mind and body, competitive academia fossilizes the soul.
Games were created to give non-heroes the illusion of winning. In real life, you don’t know who really won or lost (except too late), but you can tell who is heroic and who is not.
I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.
Fragility: we have been progressively separating human courage from warfare, allowing wimps with computer skills to kill people without the slightest risk to themselves.
Being a Philosopher and Managing to Remain One
To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.
Sadly, we learn the most from fools, economists, and other reverse role models, yet we pay them back with the worst ingratitude.
Epistemology and Subtractive Knowledge
They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).
The four most influential moderns: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (the productive) Einstein were scholars but not academics. It has always been hard to do genuine—and nonperishable—work within institutions.
The Scandal of Prediction
A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.
The ancients knew very well that the only way to understand events was to cause them.
Anyone voicing a forecast or expressing an opinion without something at risk has some element of phoniness. Unless he risks going down with the ship this would be like watching an adventure movie.
Economic Life (and other very vulgar subjects)
There are designations, like “economist,” “prostitute,” or “consultant,” for which additional characterization doesn’t add information.
What they call “risk” I call opportunity; but what they call “low risk” opportunity I call sucker problem.
Organizations are like caffeinated dupes unknowingly jogging backward; you only hear of the few who reach their destination.
The best test of whether someone is extremely stupid (or extremely wise) is whether financial and political news make sense to him.
You can be certain that the head of a corporation has a lot to worry about when he announces publicly that “there is nothing to worry about.”
The stock market, in brief: participants are calmly waiting in line to be slaughtered while thinking it is for a Broadway show.
What makes us fragile is that institutions cannot have the same virtues (honor, truthfulness, courage, loyalty, tenacity) as individuals.
The difference banks and the Mafia: banks have better legal-regulatory expertise, but the Mafia understands public opinion.
“It is much easier to scam people for billions than just for millions.”
The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist.
The Sage, the Weak, and the Magnificent
Mediocre men tend to be outraged by small insults but passive, subdued and silent in front of very large ones.
The only definition of an alpha male: if you try to be an alpha male, you will never be one.
The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.
The traits I respect are erudition and the courage to stand up when half-men are afraid for their reputation. Any idiot can be intelligent.
The mediocre regret their words more than their silence; finer men regret their silence more than their words; the magnificent have nothing to regret.
Regular men are a certain varying number of meals away from lying, stealing, killing, or even working as forecasters for the Federal Reserve; never the magnificent.
The classical man’s worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man’s worst fear is just death.
The Implicit and the Explicit
You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.
Bad-mouthing is the only genuine, never faked expression of admiration.
When a woman says about a man that he is intelligent, she often means handsome; when a man says about a woman that she is dumb, he always means attractive.
For company, you often prefer those who find you interesting over those you find interesting.
Half the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears.
On the Varieties of Love and Non Love
At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge or love; sometimes for two, never for three.
Love without sacrifice is like theft.
There are men who surround themselves with women (and seek wealth) for ostentation; others who do so mostly for consumption; they are rarely the same.
Outside of friendship and love, it is very hard to find situations with bilateral, two-way suckers.
You will get the most attention from those who hate you. No friend, no admirer, and no partner will flatter you with as much curiosity.
When a young woman partners with an otherwise uninteresting rich man, she can sincerely believe that she is attracted to some very specific body part (say, his nose, neck, or knee).
A good foe is far more loyal, predictable and, to the clever, useful than the most valuable admirer.
Platonic minds expect life to be like film, with defined terminal endings; a-Platonic ones expect film to be like life, and except for conditions such as death, distrust the terminal nature of all human-declared endings.
Read other reviews and notes on the book’s Amazon page.