Man who foretold the financial crash still struggling to locate his next great prophecy


Of the countless things one hopes never happen in life, close to the top is crossing paths with Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Attempting to process NNT in book form is a project that requires great optimism; being placed next to him at a dinner party or, God forbid, in the window seat of an aeroplane would require one to employ the full range of nodding, from polite to frantic and finally to fast asleep, either real or feigned. Disagreement, debate or even polite entreaties for clarification of his many points do not seem likely to be encouraged. Whatever you say he’d probably label you a moron in his next outing in print.

The book that made his name, The Black Swan, was a terrific read, with an easy-to-grasp central point – that just because something hasn’t been witnessed doesn’t mean it can’t happen and the folly of big money making this assumption – plus an Olympic swimming pool of scorn poured on all those guilty of such idiocy (ie pretty much everyone, bar NNT) and the dream timing of the financial crash elevating him to overnight prophet. His reward was to see the title enter the language as a means of referring to instances of extreme improbability – especially those that happen (qv. Leicester City winning the Premier League).

However, his next book, Antifragile, encapsulated something the great “probability professional” had failed to anticipate – it was unreadable. His style – a mixture of his own baffling economic theories, supported with endless classical references, disdain for anyone who hasn’t read as many books as he has (ie all of them) and regular kickings for Steven Pinker and the yoghurt drinking Saudis – is given full vent once more. Someone though, has steamrollered Skin in the Game into a text with at least the semblance of coherence and dialled down the overboasting, even if the relief felt at the end is tainted by a sense that one has failed to emerge from the experience with much of use.

The thesis here, that decisions should only be of value when taken by those with “skin in the game” – people who stand to feel the consequences of their actions, eg entrepreneurs, fishermen, NNT – and not those who don’t, eg administrators, bankers, politicians, academics and Steven Pinker, is a valid one. It rings pitch perfect to anyone who has had to swallow the “advice” of experts knowing full well they couldn’t give a shit AND will collect a fat wedge from you, either directly (lawyers) or indirectly (football pundits) for sharing their consequence-free wisdom.

But the problem with such an overconfident, sneering tone is that it eventually becomes a drone: “Mark of Ephesus….ancestral village in Lebanon….Fat Tony…books of French poetry that Steven Pinker hasn’t read…skip this section if you’re not interested in blah blah.” And droned intel does not penetrate very well. You are clearly an immensely learned and successful man, Mr Taleb, but what if everyone at one your fancy cocktail parties is crammed in one corner, trying to avoid you? What good your brilliant theories then?