10 Questions for Nassim Taleb

The Black Swan author's latest, The Bed of Procrustes, is a book of aphorisms. Nassim Taleb will now take your questions

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Is there an aphorism you keep close to your heart?

James Wolff, PACHUCA, MEXICO

"The only measure of success is how much time you have to kill." That's my favorite one, probably. There's no objective measure of wealth.

How did you become interested in theories of randomness?

Emily Hansen, SANDS POINT, N.Y.

I did not like school. I thought it was a bed of Procrustes. Procrustes had an inn and would feed people an excellent meal, then put them to bed. Those who were too tall, he would cut their legs to make them fit. Those too short, he would stretch. School for me was something that killed any pleasure in knowing and discovering things. Little by little, I realized that what I cared about was what we didn't know.

If you were to lie in the bed of Procrustes, would he stretch you to fit or cut off your legs?

Frank Vasquez, VIENNA, VA.

I think maybe both. There are skills I don't have, so people have to stretch me. Cutting me off is when people don't take seriously my discussion of the problems at the foundation of probabilistic knowledge, that in the end we have assumptions that are incorrect at the foundation of statistical science and economics.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Evan Skoures, ATHENS

That's an irrelevant question because it's Procrustean. I am optimistic about some things. There are things about which it helps to be pessimistic even though your heart is not pessimistic. I want the pilot of the plane to be pessimistic, but I want my book editor to be optimistic.

In The Black Swan, you advise people to take a job with an hourly wage. In The Bed of Procrustes, you speak against traditional jobs. How should a young person decide which to pursue?

Christian Kleineidam, BERLIN

That's not true. I've explained several times that I don't trust the middle class because they're vulnerable, insecure and not robust. I'm not telling people, "Don't take a regular job." I'm saying, "You're going to be a prisoner ethically, not just physically, when you take a middle-class, professional job."

Black swans are generally extreme outliers. Is it possible to profit from these events?

Kumaraguru Nadaraja, ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA

Half of The Black Swan is about there being positive and negative black swans. Antifragile systems benefit from black swans. Evolution benefits from random events--otherwise we wouldn't be here.

You warned about the financial crisis, and you were right. Do you foresee any other crises?

John Hughes, WOODINVILLE, WASH.

Yes. Unfortunately, there's this debt crisis. The stock market is down so much, but all the managers are rich because they get bonuses and no maluses. People are unemployed because of their mistakes. It's not going to go away unless you have dramatic reform. But I don't have trust in humans to reform things.

You have worked in Europe and the U.S. What is the difference in assessing risk in these two places?

Mark Sawaya, BEIRUT

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