Unnerving Words of an Idiosyncratic Genius

Greek mythology has a story about a bandit called Procrustes. His name means “the stretcher.” True to his name, Procrustes was a rogue smith who would abduct travelers, treat them with a lavish dinner and invite them to spend the night in a special bed.

He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection, writes Taleb in his book The Bed of Procrustes, “Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.”

Nobody ever fitted the bed exactly and Procrustes’ reign of terror continued until he was captured by Theseus who “fitted” Procrustes in his own bed.

A Procrustean solution is thus the practice of forcefully fitting reality to the rigid containers of theoretical models and preconceived structures. This post is a compilation of my highlights and notes from The Bed of Procrustes — Taleb’s lesser known book.

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The Men Who Built America

The new year started with someone tipping me off about a documentary named The Men Who Built America. What followed was a six-hour binge watch. The history channel docudrama chronicles the lives of five American business titans — Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Ford. What fascinated me about this series wasn’t just how the industrial innovations and business empires of these five individuals revolutionized modern society, but also how their paths crossed more often than I would’ve imagined.

History doesn’t repeat itself, said Mark Twain, “but it often rhymes.” The capitalistic rivalry among the 19th-century tycoons has an uncanny similarity to present day standoffs between business honchos. Which means, there might be crucial insights hidden in these century-old events which would give you a more informed perspective on how the modern business stories could unfold and their impact on society at large.

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The Epiphany

“See, when you want to reverse the car to left, you have to turn the steering wheel to the left,” I told my wife. She was learning reverse parking and I was her self-appointed driving coach.

“But when I turn left, the car is going towards right!” she exclaimed.

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The Scam of Percentages

The day remains clearly etched in my memory. I was in fifth standard and one day I came home utterly dejected. The maths teacher had introduced the concept of percentages and I just couldn’t fathom it. It sounded freakishly alien. I literally had tears in my eyes because it seemed that everybody in the class understood it except me.

The teacher had repeated the definition – percentage is when you convert any ratio into base of hundred – at least a dozen times in the class that day. It didn’t help.

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