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Nassim Taleb’s Life Advice: Be Careful of Life Advice

Nassim Taleb, the modern philosopher best known for his ideas on The Black Swan and Antifragility, gave his first commencement address this year, at American University in Beirut. (I suspect he’s been asked in the past but declined.)

Like him or not, Taleb is a unique and uncompromising mind. He doesn’t suffer any fools and doesn’t sacrifice his principles for money or fame, so far as one can tell. He’s willing to take tremendous personal heat if he thinks he’s right. (Again, agree with him or not.) There’s a certain honor in his approach that must be admired.

The most interesting part of his commencement is on the idea of life advice itself. Commencement speeches are, obviously, meant to pass advice from a wise (and famous) person to a younger generation. But Nassim goes in a bit of a different direction: He advises the students to be careful of common life advice, for if he had followed it, he’d have never become the unique and interesting person he became.

I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them. I was told to focus and I never did. I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for The Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies. I was told to avoid putting fictional characters in my books and I did put in Nero Tulip and Fat Tony because I got bored otherwise. I was told to not insult the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; the more I insulted them the nicer they were to me and the more they solicited Op-Eds. I was told to avoid lifting weights for a back pain and became a weightlifter: never had a back problem since.

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.

The truth is, much of the advice you receive as a young person will be pretty good. Saving money works. Marrying the right person works. Avoiding drugs works. Etc. The obvious stuff is worth following. (You don’t always have to walk on your hands because everyone else walks on their feet.)

But there’s a host of more subjective wisdom that, generally speaking, leads you to become a lot more like other people. “Common wisdom,” insofar as it’s actually common, tends to reinforce cultural norms and values. If you want to lead a comfortable existence, that may work fine. But it won’t create another Nassim Taleb, or another Steve Jobs, or another Richard Feynman. They, and many others, embraced what made them different.

Of course, many less successful people embraced their oddities, too. The silent grave is chock full of candidates. This isn’t a “recipe for success” or some other nonsense — it’s more complicated than simply being different. (The narrative fallacy is always right around the corner.)

But one has to suspect that a more interesting and honorable life is led by those who are a bit uncompromising on the important values like integrity, self-education, and moral courage. If you can offset that by being extremely compromising on the unimportant stuff, you may have a shot at living an interesting and different life with a heaping scoop of integrity.

You can read the rest of the commencement here. If you’re still interested, check out a few other great commencement speeches.