Courage is the only virtue that cannot be faked

I love Nassim Taleb’s books: they’re thought-provoking, intelligent and pretty original. His themes are important ones: how do complex systems behave, why is being anti-fragile better than being robust? His writing is full with philosophy inspired insights, new views on old matters and funny provocations. His latest subject is no exception: the importance of having “skin in the game”. Taleb makes it pretty clear that one should never listen, let alone trust, someone who has no skin in the game. Risk taking is the only thing Taleb really values, as courage is the only virtue that you cannot fake.

Of course, he’s right: there’s too many self-proclaimed experts that impose their lazy thinking on us – they come in all kind of shapes and forms: politicians, journalists or bankers. The book makes a convincing case for the power of entrepreneurship, dissidents and municipal government. And, there’s plenty to laugh.

But Taleb’s forte, his speaking-truth-to-power-mentality (besides his intelligence and erudition) – also reveal its flip side in this book. In discussing those that don’t meet his high standards, there’s very little humility on display.  He specifically dislikes those working in international affairs and politics, but he also lambasts the likes of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately he does so without explaining their shortcomings – except being “pseudo-scientists”. In those and other instances, Taleb himself doesn’t have skin the game either. Of course, no one has skin in the game on all matters, but then don’t blame others for doing the same. Taleb doesn’t seem to apply his standard to himself.

Taleb states that the only rigorous definition of rationality he has come across is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival. Including a few too many ad hominems in an otherwise interesting book probably makes senses form that same point of view: it’s Taleb’s own survival technique.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Skin in the Game, Hidden asymmetries in daily life, 253 p. Penguin 2018