Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Self-Education and Doing the Math (Ep. 41 — Live at Mercatus)

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On the Greeks and the Maronites

COWEN: You’re Greek Orthodox by background. If I were to ask, how did the Maronites fit into your schema? There’s a long-standing tension between these groups. It seems to me often that the Greek Orthodox would actually side with the Muslims, wanting a more stable Lebanon, suspicious of the Crusades, suspicious of the Maronites themselves. What’s your take on this?

On learning to be meaningful

COWEN: Let me try a question a reader emailed to me, and I quote, “What advice could you give to the timid and unconfident? Does one seeking conventional employability and respect out of lack of imagination or lack of confidence deserve only contempt? How does one begin to learn meaningfully if you’re not awesome?”

We understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.

The second one, you should never be a public intellectual if any statement you make doesn’t entail risk-taking. In other words, you should never have rewards without any risk. That’s the thing. Then you can accept inequality if the person who’s unequal is taking risks because that would make things rotate.

On things fragile and antifragile

COWEN: I’d like to toss out the names of just a few countries or regions. You tell me whether or not you think they’re antifragile. Singapore?

All of them — Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Romania — all of them, in fact, improved through the [Post-Soviet] phase. Currently, it makes me believe that they could take another economic crisis, any crisis, and survive. They have proved the ability to survive. I’m not sure France can manage tomorrow the same disruption.

COWEN: Erdoğan’s Turkey, fragile or antifragile?

On wisdom

COWEN: I have a series of quick questions to ask you about the topic of wisdom. I’ll just shoot these out. Feel free to pass if you don’t want to address them. First, what is the biggest mistake people make when they go to the gym?

I tried to have a Twitter fight with a fellow because usually Twitter fights, number one, makes you look forward to sitting down and opening your computer.

And it kills time like nothing. But no one will engage me any more.

I tried to have a Twitter fight with a fellow because usually Twitter fights, number one, makes you look forward when sitting down and opening your computer.

On cryptocurrencies and AI

COWEN: Could we put our trust in cryptocurrencies?

On social media

COWEN: Should we someday just go all collectively and turn our back on social media?

Social media is bringing us back to a naturalistic environment because, say, in Athens, what was the newsroom?

The newsroom was the barbershop — you go in, you give information, and you take information. Or a fish market — you go in, you get fish, you get information and give information. And funerals, where you go in and chat, fake like you’re crying, and then you’re getting all the gossip.

We’re gossip machines. Social media is great in that respect. I love it.

So there was no book review in US, my book, on social media. And it opened number 12 on best-seller list. It tells you that you don’t need the New York Times to exist as an author, that Twitter is sufficient, Twitter and some Facebook. That’s it.

On the Nassim Nicholas Taleb production function

COWEN: For our final segment, I have a few questions on what I call the Nassim Nicholas Taleb production function. You’ve written a few times that you’ve described yourself as an ascetic, in some ways. How did you become an ascetic early in your life?

Read as much as you can, and try to get the lowest possible passing grades you can at school.

I remember the stuff I read by myself, that I was driven. I don’t remember stuff that was given to me at school. It’s an allocation of time.



A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between. For new episodes, visit

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