During this series, we will be covering part one of Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘s Fooled by Randomness, which centers on what Taleb calls Solon’s warning.

Croesus1, King of Lydia, was considered the richest man of his time. To this day Romance languages use the expression “rich as Croesus” to describe a person of excessive wealth. He was said to be visited by Solon, the Greek legislator known for his dignity, reserve, upright morals, humility, frugality, wisdom, intelligence, and courage. Solon did not display the smallest surprise at the wealth and splendor surrounding his host, nor the tiniest admiration for their owner. Croesus was so irked by the manifest lack of impression on the part of this illustrious visitor that he attempted to extract from him some acknowledgment. He asked him if he had known a happier man than him. Solon cited the life of a man who led a noble existence and died while in battle. Prodded for more, he gave similar examples of heroic but terminated lives, until Croesus, irate, asked him point-blank if he was not to be considered the happiest man of all. Solon answered: “The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man’s happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity has guaranteed continued happiness until the end we may call happy.”

The modern equivalent has been no less eloquently voiced by the baseball coach Yogi Berra, who seems to have translated Solon’s outburst from the pure Attic Greek into no less pure Brooklyn English with “it ain’t over until it’s over,” or, in a less dignified manner, with “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” In addition, aside from his use of the vernacular, the Yogi Berra quote presents an advantage of being true, while the meeting between Croesus and Solon was one of those historical facts that benefited from the imagination of the chroniclers, as it was chronologically impossible for the two men to have been in the same location.2

Translating further, Solon’s warning is that the only way a situation can be weighed and parsed into categories of success or failure, happiness or despair, is to wait until the complete story is told. What is gained by luck can easily be lost the same way. On the other side of the coin, what arrives irrespective of luck is more resistant to randomness.3

Yet the story of Croesus has another twist. Having lost a battle to the redoubtable Persian king Cyrus, he was about to be burned alive when he called Solon’s name and shouted (something like) “Solon, you were right” (again this is legend). Cyrus asked about the nature of such unusual invocations, and he told him about Solon’s warning. This impressed Cyrus so much that he decided to spare Croesus’ life, as he reflected on the possibilities as far as his own fate was concerned…4

Often, only a drastic change in circumstances can reveal how little control we have over our lives. It’s skill when we win, luck when we lose.

The earlier reference to Yogi Berra makes me think of another baseball analogy. Barry Switzer once said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” Solon’s warning in baseball turns would be that sometimes these same people get caught leaning and are picked off at third, if the inning goes long enough. I could say I’m sorry for all the baseball references, except we are rapidly approaching the MLB post-season, so they’re all fair-game.5

This post is one part in a series on Fooled by Randomness. Feel free to dip in anywhere or start at the beginning.

  1. Reads like “creases..” ↩︎

  2. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, link↩︎

  3. Taleb, link↩︎

  4. Taleb, link↩︎

  5. Too far? ↩︎