by Warren Singh
J.D. Salinger once noted that a good book was one that made you wish you were friends with the author. By that measure, I’m reading a good book, even if Nassim Nicholas Taleb is coming off as a bit of an ass. Well, a lot of an ass. But that’s okay, because, apparently, so am I.
I’m just finishing up Fooled By Randomness, a 200-something page book published by Random House that Taleb describes as a personal essay, intended to be read for fun, about “the hidden role of chance in life and in the markets,” as the subtitle has it. Taleb weaves in threads from psychology, economics, philosophy, finance, history, classic literature, probability theory, and anecdotes. In short, the book is an unconstrained story, going wherever it pleases, sprawling out around a central theme like an aerial view of London at night.
What’s the theme? Taleb writes, “I have been periodically challenged to compress all this business of randomness into a few sentences … it is: we favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.”
It’s simultaneously discomfiting and liberating to consider Taleb’s central point is that randomness is fundamental in much of our lives. Throughout the book, he expounds on the idea that we are so much less in control of what events occur than we think – we correct our past predictions in hindsight to appear more correct to ourselves, we convince ourselves that we are solely responsible for the good things that happen to us due to our actions, and we become married to our first ideas and beliefs, defending them against any and all incoming evidence to the contrary.
Taleb doesn’t argue that life’s underlying randomness is good or bad per se, he argues for its deep-running nature and indelible impact on our lives, and expounds on this idea that we cannot see it because of our inborn psychological patterns and fallacies. We are, if I may use a neologism, randumb.
Writing in a distinctive, personal voice, Taleb spins out this idea into its many facets, from financial markets to our personal lives and decisions, ultimately musing on the bad (and good) aspects of being so inextricably bound to the vagaries of chance. In the end, Fooled By Randomness is a conversation with an uncle at a family gathering, one who is unashamedly opinionated and iconoclastic, bordering on overbearing – and yet, entertaining, thought-provoking, insightful and very much worth the time.