• September 21, 2014

This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb

This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb 1

Monica Hellström for The Chronicle Review

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close This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb 1

Monica Hellström for The Chronicle Review

This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb

Monica Hellström for The Chronicle Review

I had lunch with Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It didn't go well.

We met at a French cafe in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, not far from Columbia University. It was a meeting more than a year in the making. I first e-mailed him when his book of aphorisms, The Bed of Procrustes, was published to see if he might submit to an interview. This, I realized, was a long shot. Taleb, best known as the author of The Black Swan, a book about how we underestimate the improbable, isn't much for interviews and regards most journalists as fools and phonies, right alongside professional academics and bureaucrats. I didn't expect to hear back.

Lo and behold, he agreed to an interview. Before we could hash out the details, though, Carlin Romano wrote a review of The Bed of Procrustes for The Chronicle. The headline was "The Bed of Crusty," so right away it didn't sound favorable. It wasn't. Romano dismissed Taleb as a "would-be aphorist with a major tin ear." I explained to Taleb that, while Romano and I write for the same publication, we had never met and I didn't know about the review in advance. He was not mollified and backed out, with apologies. Who could blame him?

Then, last summer, I learned that he had a new book coming out. Not a slim volume of maxims and observations but rather a meaty treatise. I e-mailed him again, and we spoke on the phone. He seemed excited about the possibility of an article, giddy even, perhaps because he thought it would stick it to the academics he regards with contempt. In previous books, he told me, he had held back, pulled a punch or two. Not this time. If they wanted to come at him with lawyers and pitchforks, so be it. Taleb sent me a PDF of the manuscript, titled Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, which he hadn't quite completed. It had yet to be edited, and he was still working on the conclusion.

I read it. Afterward, I sent him an e-mail, calling the book "engaging and stimulating throughout." Say what you want about Taleb's writing—and Romano is not the only critic—he doesn't produce antiseptic prose, and there's something fun about his surly, middle-finger-to-the-experts attitude. And the digressions! One moment he's telling you why convexity leads to philostochasticity and the next he's explaining why he doesn't eat papayas. For the record, he avoids all fruits without a Greek or Hebrew name because his ancestors would not have eaten them. And he drinks only beverages that are at least a thousand years old. Don't offer the man an orange Shasta.

Taleb, now in his early 50s, lives his philosophy and believes everyone else should too. You must have "skin in the game," as he puts it repeatedly. He uses that phrase, by my count, 28 times in Antifragile, and it's central to his worldview and integral to his critique of the "fragilista": the sucker who sits on the sidelines, who doesn't know what he thinks he knows, who lacks the pluck to risk his own fortune and reputation. Unlike Taleb. "I have only written, in every line I have composed in my professional life, about things I have done, and the risks I have recommended that others take or avoid were risks I have been taking or avoiding myself," he writes. "I will be the first hurt if I am wrong."

Here's an example. Taleb made a lot of money when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Common wisdom had it that housing prices go up, because they had always gone up. Taleb told me it was obvious to him that executives at Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage company, didn't understand the concept of "fat tails," that is, they didn't understand the extreme risks of the investments they held. In retrospect that's obvious, but it was not a widely held opinion back then. The handful who bet on the unthinkable made a killing, including Taleb.

He asked me how much I thought he made during the crisis.

"I don't know," I said.

"Guess."

"Five million?"

He laughed. "Try times 10," he said.

Later, he made a reference to $30-million, so I'm unsure of the exact figure, not that it matters: Taleb was already wealthy. He had made his first millions on Wall Street by age 27. "I became successful because I knew what I learned in school about probability was bullshit," he said. "That's when my war with academia started."

Taleb is in the university but not of it. He spent the first couple decades of his career as a derivatives trader before turning to scholarship and essay writing in his mid-40s. Taleb is a professor of risk engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Despite his wall of degrees (he has an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and a doctorate from the University of Paris), he believes that universities propagate "touristification," another term he coined, a phenomenon that occurs when what should be an exciting exploration turns into a programmatic exercise. It's better to be an adventurer than a tourist. Education isn't the only result of this modern sin; gym machines and "the electronic calendar" fall short as well.

Taleb has a low opinion of most professors. He titles one section of the new book "The Charlatan, the Academic, and the Showman." In a chart, Taleb divides professions into three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. It's bad to be fragile, better to be robust, best to be antifragile. Artists and writers are antifragile. Postal employees and truck drivers are robust. Academics, bureaucrats, and the pope are fragile. Benedict, beware.

"I don't rely on external confirmation, and I have a happy life."

Most of Taleb's ire is directed at business schools, specifically the one at Harvard. At Harvard they "lecture birds to fly," then arrogantly claim credit when the fledglings become airborne. He rails against the "Soviet-Harvard delusion," linking an institution that's graduated thousands with a state that killed millions. What is the delusion, exactly? It is a belief in a top-down system that tries to control and protect, purportedly for mankind's benefit, thereby eliminating the natural stressors and necessary randomness that create strength and encourage enterprise. Dekulakization and course catalogs are symptoms of the same ailment.

Taleb has no patience for so-called structured learning. "Only the autodidacts are free," he writes in the book. He pursued his real education in his spare time, doing only as much as was required to pass his courses. At 13, he set himself a goal of reading for 30 to 60 hours a week, pretty much a full-time job. To prove that he hit the books with enthusiasm, Taleb ticks off the names of more than 30 great writers he has read. We don't learn much about what he gleaned from this ardent page-turning or which authors influenced his own style. He does give the following assessment of the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig: "didn't like."

Actually, Antifragile feels like a compendium of people and things Taleb doesn't like. He is, for instance, annoyed by editors who "overedit," when what they should really do is hunt for typos; unctuous, fawning travel assistants; "bourgeois bohemian bonus earners"; meetings of any kind; appointments of any kind; doctors; Paul Krugman; Thomas Friedman; nerds; bureaucrats; air conditioning; television; soccer moms; smooth surfaces; Harvard Business School; business schools in general; bankers at the Federal Reserve; bankers in general; economists; sissies; fakes; "bureaucrato-journalistic" talk; Robert Rubin; Google News; marketing; neckties; "the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature"; regular shoes.

The social sciences make the list, too. He contrasts them with "smart" sciences, like physics. He mocks social scientists as mired in "petty obsessions, envy, and icy-cold hatreds," contrasting the small-mindedness of academe with the joie de vivre of the business world. "My experience is that money and transactions purify relations," he writes. "Ideas and abstract matters like 'recognition' and 'credit' warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry." In our interview, he went even further, saying he would "shut down" the social sciences. "Those guys are living in their own world," he said. "That is the truth. You don't need them."

I pointed out that he praises some psychologists, like Daniel Kahneman, and regularly refers to psychological concepts in Antifragile. Would he padlock the psych labs, too? No, he told me. "Psychology is more empirical," he clarified. Sociologists, on the other hand, would presumably be better off delivering mail.

He saves his iciest hate for economists. Taleb has no use for the "charlatanic" field, comparing economic research to medieval medicine. Economists are, in his estimation, weak, ignorant, fearful, and generally pathetic. At one point he fantasizes about beating up an economist in public.

Taleb singles out his least-favorite economists, including Robert C. Merton, a professor of finance at MIT, formerly of Harvard, and Myron Scholes, a professor emeritus of finance at Stanford, who jointly received the Nobel Prize in 1997 for their model of valuing derivatives that's designed to hedge against risk. Merton is "serious, mechanistic, boring," according to Taleb, and the two used "fictional mathematics" in their research. He calls this "unsettling" in a footnote, though in the earlier draft he sent me he used a harsher word. I'd wager that punch may have been pulled by Random House's legal department. Merton didn't return my messages, and Scholes politely declined to comment.

Gary Pisano, however, was willing to talk. Pisano, a professor of business administration at Harvard, is singled out in the book for his "dangerous" thinking; Taleb hammers him for supposedly misunderstanding the market for biotechnology. Pisano told me Taleb didn't know what he was talking about. "His argument is about these rare events that generate huge returns," he said. "That doesn't happen in biotech." The specifics of that debate aside, Pisano shrugged off the criticism and said he had enjoyed Taleb's work in the past: "I think he writes some very interesting and provocative things, but I think it gets a little lost in the manner."

The idea that Taleb's insights are sometimes overwhelmed by his belligerence is a longstanding criticism. Articles published in the American Statistician soon after The Black Swan appeared chastised him for his alleged ignorance of "entire subfields of statistics," committing mathematical errors, and lobbing "gratuitous insults" at statisticians. The opprobrium was mixed with gratitude that, whatever his faults, Taleb had managed to shine a bright light on an arcane topic. Still, you got the sense that statisticians were smarting. Taleb's fans—and there are many of them—see his abrasiveness as proof that he doesn't tolerate nonsense. They show up in droves to hear him speak, leave rapturous reviews on Amazon, and praise his television appearances. One YouTube commenter put it succinctly: "He's so awesome."

While Taleb dislikes the university system and doesn't respect career academics, he's not against education per se. Studying mathematics is fine for its own sake. And it's worthwhile to read the classics. But modern scholarship is bewitched by novel findings—what Taleb dubs "neomania"—and researchers are driven by their need to publish, perverting their efforts and tainting the outcome. "How can knowledge be something you do for professional advancement?" he asked. But, you might counter, Taleb is a professor at a university who publishes in journals. It would be one thing if he were blogging from a cabin somewhere, but isn't he part of the problem he's identified?

Ah, but he doesn't publish papers to advance his career. They are technical addenda to his popular books. "I ban myself from publishing anything outside of these footnotes," he writes in Antifragile. Because of his success, he is not beholden to deans and committees or anyone else, for that matter. "You cannot rely on external confirmation and have a happy life," he told me. "I don't rely on external confirmation, and I have a happy life."

I wanted to know more about that happy life, which is why I flew to New York to meet Taleb. When he arrived at lunch, he was wearing a plain black shirt, black shorts, and sandals of some kind (not regular shoes, which, as stated earlier, he opposes). He writes in Antifragile that readers, upon meeting him, "have a rough time dealing with an intellectual who has the appearance of a bodyguard." I wouldn't have guessed bodyguard, though he is thicker—thanks to a newfound love of weightlifting—than he appeared in publicity shots for The Black Swan, published in 2007. Taleb has less hair these days, and more of it is gray. He speaks rapidly and conspiratorially, punctuating his remarks with "You see?"—though the way he says it is more imperative than interrogative. You will see.

We sat outside, where it was difficult to hear over the din from the street and the chatter of fellow diners. The waiter screwed up his order. Taleb seemed generally agitated and uncomfortable. That was understandable, I thought: He's been in his head, writing his opus, the book he believes is more significant than his big best seller, and then somebody starts poking at him before it's been delivered to the printer. That could put a person on edge. The double espresso he knocked back didn't help either.

After we ate, Taleb asked if I wanted to accompany him to a nearby bookstore. I said sure. When we arrived, he turned to me and asserted that any article I wrote should be in the form of a question-and-answer column. I bumbled a response, telling him that's not what I had in mind (indeed, in an e-mail, I had used the word "profile" twice). This was unacceptable to him. "Go write fiction then!" he exclaimed. "I haven't given you enough for a profile anyway!" We parted on bad terms and exchanged a few curt e-mails the next day. A planned follow-up—we were going to rendezvous at a restaurant in his neighborhood—didn't happen.

Taleb writes about storming out of meetings with publishers and interviews with radio stations. That usually happens when he feels he's been insulted. The publisher suggests he take speaking lessons or the radio host tells him his answer is too complicated. Perhaps I accidentally insulted him or didn't sufficiently appreciate his ideas. Or maybe my questions about his weightlifting and dietary habits were too intrusive. I don't know what set him off. But considering his history, maybe I should have seen it coming.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle.

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