Summary: 5 min
Book reading time: 1h23
Published in: 2010
- Observing the world is about seeing what there is and building a philosophy based on that.
- Most people do the opposite.
- They build pre-conceived ideas and force them onto the world.
What The Bed of Procrustes Talks About
The Bed of Procrustes is a collection of short observations (called aphorisms) ordered per topic. It’s the third book of Nassim Taleb’s series called The Incerto. I learned things like “the person you are the most afraid to contradict is yourself”, “the opposite of manliness is technology”, or “rumors are only valuable when they are denied.”
The Incerto is composed as follows.
This book is very short, and it appears to have a similar structure to the Tao te Ching.
Most of the observations Nassim Taleb made are spot-on, and overall, it’s a wise and entertaining book.
I collected the best aphorisms for you in this summary, but I recommend you buy and read the book.
Summary of The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Procrustes was a character in Greek mythology. He abducted foreigners, gave them a meal, then put them into bed.
He wanted the bed to fit his victims perfectly.
When the guests were too tall, he would chop off their legs. If they were too short, he would “stretch” them.
Procrustes died when he abducted Theseus, which subsequently forced him into his own bed, and decapitated him.
This book is called such since, like Procrustes, humans tend to fit reality into their idea instead of the opposite.
And it doesn’t make any sense.
This book is a collection of observations holding all by the same idea: that reality isn’t perceived as it actually is.
The person you are the most afraid to contradict is yourself.
An idea is interesting when you are scared to take it to its logical conclusion.
Pharmaceutical companies invent diseases to match current medicines, not the other way around.
Modernity’s double punishment is to make us age prematurely and, live longer.
Your brain is most intelligent when you don’t instruct it on what to do.
Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working. Be selective about professions.
There is no intermediate state between ice and water, but there is one between life and death: employment.
It is harder to say no when you really mean it than when you don’t.
Your reputation is harmed the most by what you say to defend it.
Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, deficits, truces, and relationships; and nothing is more temporary than “permanent” ones.
Hatred is harder to fake than love.
The opposite of manliness is technology.
What we call a good listener is someone with skillfully polished indifference.
The Sacred and the Profane
Atheism means treating the dead as if they were unborn.
People used to wear ordinary clothes during the week and formal attire on Sunday. Today, it’s the opposite.
To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.
Chance, Success, Happiness, and Stoicism
You don’t become free by avoiding being a slave. You also need to avoid becoming a master.
Fortune punishes the greedy by making him poor and the very greedy by making him rich.
Quite revealing of human preferences that more suicides come from share or loss of financial and social status than medical diagnoses.
What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.
Karl Marx figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.
The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor – and the other way around.
The difference between slaves in Roman times is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss.
It is a good practice to always apologize except when you have done something wrong.
Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.
Charming and Less Charming Sucker Problems
Rumors are only valuable when they are denied.
Over the long term, you are more likely to fool yourself than others.
Social media are antisocial, health foods are unhealthy, knowledge workers are ignorant, and social sciences aren’t scientific.
Theseus, or Living the Paleo Life
The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.
Men destroy each other during war; themselves during peacetime.
You have a real life if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.
With terminal disease, nature lets you die with abbreviated suffering; medicine lets you suffer with prolonged dying.
We are hunters; we are only truly alive in those moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises, and stimuli from the environment.
For everything, use boredom instead of a clock.
The Republic of Letters
The costs of specialization: architects build to impress other architects; academics write to impress other academics; painters impress art dealers; but authors who write to impress book editors tend to fail.
The Universal and the Particular
The more complex the system, the weaker the notion of Universal.
You want to be yourself: the collective wants you generic to the point of castration.
True love is the complete victory of the particular over the general, and the unconditional over the conditional.
Fooled by Randomness
Every ten years, collective wisdom degrades by half.
The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control, and the opposite.
The sucker’s trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don’t know, rather than the reverse.
The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much after than its benefits.
If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.
the kindest act toward you in your life may come from an outsider not interested in reciprocation.
We are most motivated to help those who need us the least.
Avoid calling heroes those who had no other choice.
Ethical man accords his profession to his beliefs, instead of according his beliefs to his profession.
People often need to suspend their self-promotion and have someone in their lives they do not need to impress. This explains dog ownership.
Robustness and Fragility
Robustness is progress without impatience.
When conflicted between two choices, take neither.
Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (math, philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.
For the robust, an error is information. For the fragile, an error is an error.
Epistemology and Subtractive Knowledge
The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.
Knowledge is subtractive, not additive.
The Scandal of Prediction
A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.
Economic Life and Other Very Vulgar Subjects
You can be certain that the head of a corporation has a lot to worry about when he announces publicly that “there is nothing to worry about”.
Institutions cannot have the same virtue as individuals.
Banks have better legal-regulatory expertise, but the Mafia understands public opinion.
It is much easier to scam people for billions than for millions.
The Sage, the Weak, and the Magnificent
The only definition of an alpha male: if you try to be an alpha male, you will never be one.
Those who have nothing to prove don’t say it.
The Implicit and the Explicit
You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.
You are guaranteed a repetition when you hear the declaration “never again”.
On the Varieties of Love and Nonlove
At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.
Love without sacrifice is like theft.
Marriage is the institutional process of feminizing men – and feminizing women.
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