I have the second edition of Fooled by Randomness, and Taleb spends a little time in the preface discussing the reception the book originally received.
One of the unsurprising caricatures of his message was that he claimed all successful people are only lucky.
…Just as our brain does not easily make out probabilistic shades (it goes for the oversimplifying “all-or-none”), it was hard to explain that the idea here was that “it is more random than we think” rather than “it is all random.” I had to face the “Taleb, as a skeptic, thinks everything is random and successful people are just lucky.” The Fooled by Randomness symptom even affected a well-publicized Cambridge Union Debate as my argument “Most City Hotshots are Lucky Fools” became “All City Hotshots are Lucky Fools” (clearly I lost the debate to the formidable Desmond Fitzgerald in one of the most entertaining discussions in my life—I was even tempted to switch sides!). The same delusion of mistaking irreverence for arrogance1 (as I noticed with my message) makes people confuse skepticism for nihilism.
Let me make it clear here: Of course chance favors the prepared! Hard work, showing up on time, wearing a clean (preferably white) shirt, using deodorant, and some such conventional things contribute to success—they are certainly necessary but may be insufficient as they do not cause success. The same applies to the conventional values of persistence, doggedness and perseverance: necessary, very necessary. One needs to go out and buy a lottery ticket in order to win. Does it mean that the work involved in the trip to the store caused the winning? Of course skills count, but they do count less in highly random environments than they do in dentistry.2
I think this captures the nuance nicely, but it is easy to see how it could be missed. After all, he spends the vast majority of his time unpacking randomness, not spending any memorable time on the necessity of hard work, since that is already a generally-assumed ingredient of success.
Just like Taleb, I’m not going to spend much time on hard work, instead focusing on randomness and how it should shape our actions and attitudes.
I’m still pretty sure he is arrogant, but that doesn’t bother me. ↩︎
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Kindle link ↩︎