Fooled by Randomness
I gave up consuming the news in 2017. In focusing on the Books of Titans reading project, I had to make some sacrifices, and the news was one of the first things to go. I used to spend at least and hour a day reading the newspaper (NY Times or Wall Street Journal) in addition to watching TV news and listening to current-event type podcasts. I’m so glad I gave it up. In part it was to open up time, but it was also because something was happening with the news that I couldn’t quite put into words.
Nassim Taleb gave voice to my concerns in Fooled by Randomness, and did so in a snarky and entertaining way. His distaste for the news and journalists made me giddy. Here are some quotes along the topic:
“It takes a huge investment in introspection to learn that the thirty or more hours spent “studying” the news last month neither had any predictive ability during your activities of that month nor did it impact your current knowledge of the world.”
“Recall that the accomplishment from which I derive the most pride is my weaning myself from television and the news media.”
“…journalism may be the greatest plague we face today–as the world becomes more and more complicated and our minds are trained fo more and more simplification”
What’s best, Taleb’s solution for getting rid of news is not what you’d think. He doesn’t avoid the news, he simply turns on the TV to a news channel and then turns off the volume. He only sees the anchors wildly gesticulating without any context. It’s his way of not just avoiding, but sinisterly sticking it to the media. I think it’s hilarious. I simply avoided the news. He welcomed it and stripped it of power.
Although there were some great sections about journalism, that was just a small part of the book. The reason that journalism came up was because the 24-hr news cycle attempts to make sense of events (mostly random events) without looking at any historical context. It’s just not possible when covering “breaking news”. The book deals more about how we are easily fooled by random events and often attribute the wrong things to a person or company’s success.
Taleb generously quotes Kahneman’s work, and so I was really happy to have read Thinking, Fast and Slow earlier this year as it was a good precursor to this book. Taleb actually helped me understand Kahneman’s work a bit more, especially in his discussion of heuristics.
I found Fooled by Randomness to take a very random approach. I mean that it did not follow a linear pathway from point A to point B, but Taleb jumped between topics to the point where I’d be questioning what a specific section had to do with the book. I actually love that type of approach. When listening to a live speech, I prefer the speaker who seemingly jumps around topics but ties them together in the end. This is the first book I’ve read by Taleb, so I’m not sure if that’s just his writing approach or if it was intentional based upon the randomness topic of the book. I have The Black Swan on my list later this year, so I’ll see at that point.
Some true gems popped out of his random writing. One that struck me was a quote that came towards the end of the book:
“Recall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results.”
Think about that for a minute. That’s a really profound statement and one that could be pondered for a while. Our society largely looks to results (quarterly results, end justifying the means), but do we have it all wrong? Should doing the right thing irrespective of result be the standard? Think of what that would change in your life and in the life of those around you. Think of how that would change our society.
I loved this book and can’t wait to read more of Taleb.