Book review Philosophy Unputdownable

Book Review | Skin in the Game

Taleb is so mad at bullsh*t artists that he writes a polemic about it.
(3.5 / 4)

In “Skin in the game”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb lands eviscerating punches with operatic gusto. At the centre of his wrath are the people who dodge personal risks and transfer the downside of their vacuous decisions to others. The Skin in the game theory says that you deserve rewards for your bold choices, but in the event of your decisions falling flat, no one else but you should take the thumping.

His ideology is simple: People won’t learn unless they are the victims to their own blunders.

“I am never bothered by normal people, it’s is the bulls***er in the intellectual profession who bothers me.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb’s acrimony toward intellectual charlatans is well documented. In “Skin in the Game” also, you will find him taking potshots at academicians, bankers, and others of the bullsh**er ilk. While some attacks such as the one on Robert Rubin stand justified, the others land in gray areas, especially those against notable academics like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.

These intellectuals (in Taleb’s dictionary, they are IYIs – Intellectuals Yet Idiots) fall into his crosshairs for the apparent reason of not having their skin in the game. Their theories work well in theory, but they flounder in practice.

His principle: Those who don’t take risks should never be involved in making decisions.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Anyone who has read Taleb’s previous books would know he gleans an inordinate amount of inspiration from history.

In “Skin in the Game”, he cites the examples of the ancient Greek and Roman heroes who would double up as both intellectuals and warriors. These ancients were risk-takers who often paid with their lives whenever their decisions went awry. They had skin in the game unlike the modern day interventionistas who take high-risk calls, but never face the consequences in case their choices boomerang.

He even recommends books written by the ancient doers who turned writers. These include the likes of Seneca, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne. Per Taleb, readers can learn classical values such as courage and stoicism from these authors.

Taleb is particularly distrustful of those who give advice for a living. He finds it fundamentally unethical since ‘advice for a living’ tantamounts to selling. Here’s Taleb:

“Avoid taking advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless there is a penalty for their advice.”

I confess to being a Taleb fan at this point, but his stuff is never going to be to everyone’s taste. He writes for the ordinary people and he hates establishment. People who grind to earn their stripes get Taleb’s love. For example, the business owners who place their own name in the products they sell go down in Taleb’s good books. Eponymy, says Taleb, shows both a commitment to the company and confidence in the product.

At the same time, he disdains everything top-down. If you are someone who dodges personal risks, safeguards own interests even as people around you experience the fallout of your bad decisions, then you have his attention. That’s precisely why he regards bureaucrats, bankers, macroeconomists, and socialists with disgust.

The people he respects are self-funding capitalists, experimental scientists, front-line soldiers and anyone who lives by putting his ideas or body into harm’s way every day and using the results as his guide for survival the following day. These are the people with skin in the game.

Conclusion

I thought that Taleb was on the top of his game with “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile“. But with this one, I felt that Taleb’s train of thought meanders after every other chapter. This manifests in lack of coherence between chapters.

Given the fact that his previous books were so much incredible, they set such high standards that I think “Skin in the game” is on a slightly loose footing in relative capacity.

As someone who absolutely loves Taleb’s writings, I would rather have him write without the incessant condescension. I don’t think any of his followers would estrange him if he presents his ideas without constantly laying into others.

That said, his bullying of others should not stop you from analysing his work purely for its merit.

Finally, if you want to understand the concept of long-term success more may want to read this book. Others who just want easy answers in life should read “Tom Sawyer”. To conclude,

“It is much more immoral to claim virtue without fully living with its direct consequences.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Skin in the game book review

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