The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Summary & Notes

Front cover of The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

In short

The Bed of Procrustes is a collection of aphorisms from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is most well known for his book The Black Swan. Like his other works this one also deals with uncertainty, randomness, and philosophy.

The title is based on a figure in Greek mythology who cut or stretched the limbs of his visitors to match the size of the bed. In a way Taleb applies this myth to modern life where humans are made to fit with technology, or with economic models, and where we often use imperfect measurement to determine things (such as deciding intelligence based on classroom performance).

The Bed of Procrustes is also part of the Incerto book series from Taleb. But since it only contains short maxims it’s probably better to start with one of the other books to get an idea of Taleb’s philosophy and thinking (such as Fooled by Randomness or The Black Swan).

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Book Summary & Notes

‘To bankrupt a fool, give him information.’

‘Academia is to knowledge what prostitution is to love; close enough on the surface but, to the nonsucker, not exactly the same thing.’

‘In science you need to understand the world; in business you need others to misunderstand it.’

‘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.’

‘Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.’

‘The sacred is all about unconditional; the profane is all about conditionals.’

‘To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.’

‘You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.’

‘”Wealthy” is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure “unwealth,” that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.’

‘What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.’

‘Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.’

‘The fastest way to become rich is to socially with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich.’

‘The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today’s employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss.’

‘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.’

‘Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.’

‘You can tell how uninteresting a person is by asking him whom he finds interesting.’

‘Social media are severely antisocial, health foods are empirically unhealthy, knowledge workers are very ignorant, and social sciences aren’t scientific at all.’

‘For so many, instead of looking for “cause of death” when they expire, we should be looking for “cause of life” when they are still around.’

‘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.’

‘Men destroy each other during war; themselves during peacetime.’

‘Decomposition, for most, starts when they leave the free, social, and uncorrupted college life for the solitary confinement of professions and nuclear families.’

‘Skills that transfer: street fights, off-path hiking, seduction, broad erudition. Skills that don’t: school, games, sports, laboratory – what’s reduced and organized.’

‘No author should be considered as having failed until he starts teaching others about writing.’

‘A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation.’

‘Just as there are authors who enjoy having written and others who enjoy writing, there are books you enjoy reading and others you enjoy having read.’

‘With regular books, read the text and skip the footnotes; with those written by academics, read the footnotes and skip the text; and with business books, skip both the text and the footnotes.’

‘What we call “business books” is an eliminative category invented by bookstores for writings that have no depth, no style, no empirical rigor, and no linguistic sophistication.’

‘Most so-called writers keep writing and writing with the hope to, some day, find something to say.’

‘Many are so unoriginal they study history to find mistakes to repeat.’

‘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.’

‘The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.’

‘We find it to be in extremely bad taste for individuals to boast of their accomplishments; but when countries do so we call it “national pride.”’

‘The tragedy of virtue is that the more obvious, boring, unoriginal, and sermonizing the proverb, the harder it is to implement.’

‘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.’

‘The difference between magnificence and arrogance is in what one does when nobody is looking.’

‘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).’

‘Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.’

‘Happiness; we don’t know what it means, how to measure it, or how to reach it, but we know extremely well how to avoid unhappiness.’

‘To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.’

‘For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for me, a life of leisure if the product of philosophical insight.’

‘There are designations, like “economist,” “prostitute,” or “consultant,” for which additional characterization doesn’t add information.’

‘A mathematician starts with a problem and creates a solution; a consultant starts by offering a “solution” and creates a problem.’

‘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.”

‘What makes us fragile is that institutions cannot have the same virtues (honor, truthfulness, courage, loyalty, tenacity) as individuals.’

‘You know when you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.’

‘You are guaranteed a repetition when you hear the declaration “never again!”’

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