Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small estate in Corydalus in Attica, on the way between Athens and Eleusis, where the mystery rites were performed. Procrustes had a peculiar sense of hospitality: he abducted travelers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched (his name was said to be Damastes, or Polyphemon, but he was nicknamed Procrustes, which meant “the stretcher”).
Every aphorism here is about a Procrustean bed of sorts—we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences.
For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.
These are stand-alone compressed thoughts revolving around my main idea of how we deal, and should deal, with what we don’t know, matters more deeply discussed in my books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.
When we want to do something while unconsciously certain to fail, we seek advice so we can blame someone else for the failure.
Never say no twice if you mean it.
We tend to define rudeness less by the words used (what is said) than by the status of the recipient (to whom it is addressed).
The only objective definition of aging is when a person starts to talk about aging.
They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status—but rarely for your wisdom.
You never win an argument until they attack your person.
The modern hypocrite gives the designation “respect” to what is nothing but fear of the powerful.
The most painful moments are not those we spend with uninteresting people; rather, they are those spent with uninteresting people trying hard to be interesting.
Hatred is love with a typo somewhere in the computer code, correctable but very hard to find.
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.
The test of whether you really liked a book is if you reread it (and how many times); the test of whether you really liked someone’s company is if you are ready to meet him again and again—the rest is spin, or that variety of sentiment now called self-esteem.
Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate.
Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.
People reserve standard compliments for those who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling “arrogant.”
If powerful assholes don’t find you “arrogant,” it means you are doing something wrong.
We call narcissistic those individuals who behave as if they were the central residents of the world; those who do exactly the same in a set of two we call lovers or, better, “blessed by love.”
When someone writes “I dislike you but I agree with you,” I read “I dislike you because I agree with you.”
It is a very powerful manipulation to let others win the small battles.
The ultimate freedom lies in not having to explain why you did something.
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.
Religion isn’t so much about telling man that there is one God as about preventing man from thinking that he is God.
Atheists are just modern versions of religious fundamentalists: both take religion too literally.
One categorical: it is easier to fast than diet. You cannot be “slightly” kosher or halal by only eating a small portion of ham.
Success is becoming in middle adulthood what you dreamed to be in late childhood. The rest comes from loss of control.
The opposite of success isn’t failure; it is name-dropping.
Corollary: if you socialize with someone with a smaller bank account than yours, you are obligated to converse as if you had exactly the same means, eat in the places where he eats, at no point in time show the pictures of your vacation in Provence or anything that hints at the differential in means.
You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.
Quite revealing of human preferences that more suicides come from shame or loss of financial and social status than medical diagnoses.
“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.
Decline starts with the replacement of dreams with memories and ends with the replacement of memories with other memories.
There is no clearer sign of failure than a middle-aged man boasting of his performance in college.
Read nothing from the past one hundred years; eat no fruits from the past one thousand years; drink nothing from the past four thousand years (just wine and water); but talk to no ordinary man over forty. A man without a heroic bent starts dying at the age of thirty.
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.
Someone who says “I am busy” is either declaring incompetence (and lack of control of his life) or trying to get rid of you.
But to succeed in life requires a total inability to do anything that makes you uncomfortable when you look at yourself in the mirror.
The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today’s employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss.
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.
You can tell how uninteresting a person is by asking him whom he finds interesting.
People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.
Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, noble, elegant, robust, and heroic life.
What we commonly call “success” (rewards, status, recognition, some new metric) is a consolation prize for those who are both unhappy and not good at what they do.
Charm is the ability to insult people without offending them; nerdiness the reverse.
In the days of Suetonius, 60 percent of prominent educators (grammarians) were slaves. Today the ratio is 97.1 percent, and growing.
Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around.
Finer men tolerate others’ small inconsistencies though not the large ones; the weak tolerate others’ large inconsistencies though not small ones.
Another marker for charlatans: they don’t voice opinions that can get them in trouble.
A prostitute who sells her body (temporarily) is vastly more honorable than someone who sells his opinion for promotion or job tenure.
Pure generosity is when you help the ingrate. Every other form is self-serving.
Accept the rationality of time, never its fairness and morality.
Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant.
It takes a lot of skills to be virtuous without being boring.
General principle: the solutions (on balance) need to be simpler than the problems.
When conflicted between two choices, take neither.
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).
For the robust, an error is information; for the fragile, an error is an error.
You can expect blowups and explosive errors in fields where there is a penalty for simplicity.
For a free person, the optimal—most opportunistic—route between two points should never be the shortest one.
People like to eat fish by the water even if the fish was caught far away and transported by trucks.
Most can’t figure out why one can like rigorous knowledge and despise academics, yet they understand that one can like food and hate canned tuna.
It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.
Knowledge is subtractive, not additive—what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do).
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).
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.
The best way to spot a charlatan: someone (like a consultant or a stockbroker) who tells you what to do instead of what not to do.
A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.
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.
It is easier to macrobullshit than to microbullshit.
The worst damage has been caused by competent people trying to do good; the best improvements have been brought by incompetent ones not trying to do good.
Anyone who likes meetings should be banned from attending meetings.
Never take investment advice from someone who has to work for a living.
The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.
Social science means inventing a certain brand of human we can understand.
Contra the prevailing belief, “success” isn’t being on top of a hierarchy, it is standing outside all hierarchies.
In the past, only some of the males, but all of the females, were able to procreate. Equality is more natural for females.
The first, and hardest, step to wisdom: avert the standard assumption that people know what they want.
I never trust a man who doesn’t have enemies.