Fooled by randomness: the hidden role of chance in life and in the markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In his organized collection of random stories of finance-related randomness, Taleb explains how we underestimate the theory of probability and luck. We tend to blame bad luck when things go not as expected, but cherish our great predictive skills when we succeed. His point is to make us more aware of how luck has more to do with success in business and finances than any knowledge driven behaviour.

The topic is intriguing for the high risk tolerant lucky successful individuals whose intelligence this book questions. The author is successful in delivering his message across already in the first fifty pages using example stories that sound very realistic, but have no reference to prove whether the characters described are real or imaginary. He does include a colourful 10-page reference list, including good and excellent authors. The references to the sources he lay within text, which might sound like a good idea from the reader’s point of view: more coherent flow, closer to storytelling, but from a researchers point it makes it hard to track back to where which claimed facts originate. Therefore, since we cannot see it painted in black and white where the characters of the example stories originate, we might as well guess they are fictional, unless we know them in person, which is highly improbable.

Despite of his genius in discovering the point he makes, he uses a style that is hard to follow. Round brackets, parentheses everywhere that distract the reader from the point. The parentheses include comments and remarks that in the whole context sound relevant: why not use commas that would make the text easier to follow? As a reader, round brackets symbolize something that is irrelevant to what it’s all about. They contain material that serves to clarify, or is aside from the main point. Therefore, if for the reader no clarifications are needed, the content of parenthesis is ignored. The more they appear in the text, the more the eyes need to be accustomed to playing minesweeper and focus on the visuals, rather than actually hone on the point.

From the side of learning psychology, he cuts the cliffhangers, which makes one’s synapses much harder, nearly impossible to connect. Therefore learning, memorizing and connecting the points becomes difficult.

Patterns of storytelling such as “Example situation. Such thing is called this and we will discuss it further in chapter x regarding that problem, which comment how it sounds to be relevant to some readers.

If you bring me an example and tell you will discuss it further in a while and add why this might be relevant to me, I lose interest in the whole thing. It might work with some readers as an incentive to continue, because “If I reach this chapter, I will be rewarded with this information.” However, this is an illusion, because by the time the reader reaches that chapter where the point was discussed, they have already forgotten that for a second they were interested in the matter. The growing synapse, waiting to link with another to form an understanding, retreats, because the brain won’t map out which neuron should the first one connect with.

Losing that link which begins to form in order for us to comprehend the bigger picture is the result of a non-coherent form of information delivery.

The first time I realized experiencing this was during a course of accounting. The lecturer read plain text from the paper. While I was trying to follow to map out all the new knowledge, lots of questions came to my mind. She dodged them all by answering that we would get to that topic in a few moments. When she finished reading the parts that had been relevant regarding my questions, she asked if it had answered my question. “No.” was the answer, as by that time I had forgotten what was it that I had not understood. Since it happened about fourteen times in the course of the month, most of what was taught never registered.

Two years later I had the chance to take an accounting course again. This time with a different lecturer who had a very progressive and supportive attitude. Every question was answered straight away or said to research it and give an answer later. Discussions often followed for all participants to understand even why the question arose. It became spring water clear and even clearer became the understanding of how important is coherency in sending information in order to be well registered.

Step one: provoke interest, define the problem.

Step two: explain in detail. Understand.

When the problem is defined, it provokes the mind to propose multiple scenarios of why and how. In a very well-defined case the audience can easily come up with the solution and the explanation themselves. When no explanation follows, but the topic is changed, the mind must refocus on the next topic and that causes a lot of confusion. Because focusing takes a while, it is also the reason why no person is good at multitasking with matters that need focus by the same sensory inputs.

If you really need to explain your matters in the upcoming paragraphs, do the reader at least the favour of giving them a brief introduction to the explanation. They have taken the bait of gaining interest, they are hanging on the cliff – all you need is to tell them briefly how things are linked, give a hint of how the protagonist finds the way to climb back up. Whatever you do, don’t put a bomb to the nearby village, telling that first the village needs to save itself and maybe later tell us about the protagonist’s life story. We will focus on the village and forget the cliff, so later when you tell us more about the protagonist, we won’t link that it’s the same guy who had been hanging there.

Yes, he claims in the book as well how he doesn’t care about the style he uses, as long as the text carries a message, but think again for a second. Would you live in a house where everything is merely functional, but pleases no aesthetic mind? Where the furniture placement and house planning follows no UX/UI principles, so every time you want to add some salt to your food, you must jump over your bed, desk and climb on top of your bookshelf, because that is where salt is kept and the placement of the other objects is never decided, therefore kept wherever they were installed?

Aesthetics and coherency reward the audience more than the functionality of the point served.

As a conclusion, I would say this book is an excellent example of a great product with bad delivery. The bad side the style, the good the point he delivers. I would recommend it as a good practice for learning to focus. In any case, there is much to learn. The patterns of human nature he has observed well and he certainly knows his field.

Read with precaution. There is a probability the style won’t bother you.


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