As any voracious reader knows, there are so many books out there, it can be hard to choose just what to read next. So what could be better than a hand-picked recommendation from someone in the know? Every Wednesday the XOXOAD team likes to find out what some of its favorite authors are reading. This week, we’ve asked Blaine Lourd, author of Born on the Bayou, what he’s got to recommend.
I love reading authors who make me think and push the limits of the assumptions I hold, consciously or unconsciously. So it was with great pleasure that I was turned onto Fooled by Randomness, a standalone book in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s landmark Incerto series. This book is an investigation of the opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision-making in our modern world.
As a book project I’ve worked on for the better part of a decade comes to fruition this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about Fooled by Randomness and how luck and an endless pattern of decisions both good and bad have led me to this point in my life. I’m 53, pretty healthy, happily married going on almost two decades, and I have three healthy, happy boys, who are, mostly, not yet old enough to understand the foibles of their primary role model. No, there are no dark secrets that would bring shame upon their name….but there is, of course, a page or two of my journey that I might re-write, if I could. There will be more decisions I’ll make that in hindsight will look prescient or foolish. The good ones will mostly go unnoticed or be expected, and the bad ones, in some cases, will be played over and over again in hindsight. We are what we perseverate upon. Choose carefully.
Taleb defines a LUCKY FOOL as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason – I hear it all the time, when colleagues on Wall Street speak of super trades that make some hedge fund manager multi-generationally wealthy overnight. “He’s a genius…He saw it all happen before it happens…He’s got such a decisive mind…He knows when to get in and when to get out.” Then the media sensationalizes their success and the talking heads do backflips to sound intelligent to the hordes who listen….but the problem is, he never ever does it again. So was he smart, or was he lucky? Mostly lucky, but not only will the media not ever say it, he won’t either. Because after all that adulation, who would want to admit that he’s just lucky?
Let’s take me, for example. I was a kid who wanted to work in the oil business. Then the oil business went bust and I had no back up plan. I studied humanities at LSU and arranged very successful fraternity mixers. At some point before CRUDE went into a 10 year bear market, my dad took me to Houston where we watched one of his friends, a stockbroker named Jeb, work for a couple of hours before we played golf and ate shrimp etouffee. Years later, when Dad broke the news to me that we weren’t going to be drilling wells together after all, the only other job that appealed to me was working as a stockbroker. I became one. I was good at it. Had I never met Jeb, what would I be doing? Alternative histories and being the luckiest fool is something I think of often.
Taleb also writes a lot about the destructive power of financial journalism and how the world becomes more and more complicated, but our minds are trained through the media to make more and more simplifications. We are already biologically wired to see causality where it doesn’t exist, and the media’s sensationalism plays upon this instinct, diverting empathy to unworthy causes. For example, Y2K in the year 2000. I used to play tennis a few times a week, and I got into a conversation with a man who had built a bunker in his back yard, sold all of his stocks and bonds and stored enough food and water to live for a year – because he was absolutely convinced that the algorithm that runs the modern world was going to blow up at 11:59 on 12/31/99. It didn’t happen, as we all know, and Taleb writes better than almost anyone about how most of the things we worry about never happen. It’s the things we don’t worry about that do. Wall street folks call that the Black Swan, and Taleb’s second book, which is not a must read like his first, is called just that. The unforeseen, improbable event. That’s my life. Perhaps it describes more lives than we care to acknowledge.
What I try to carry forward while decision-making in this fast-paced, sound-bite-driven culture we wade through, is a healthy respect for the unknown. A willingness to second-guess my biases, consider situations from many perspectives – knowing that each is flawed, just one more stroke in an impressionistic vision of the world unfolding. Which brings me to gratitude.
If we are grateful for the choices we do have, and acknowledge how many we don’t – maybe we can begin to see ourselves and others a shade more clearly. People think heroes are heroic because they won or lost, but the truth is, they are heroic because of their behavior. Decisions reside with us as we strive, but overwhelmingly, so does randomness. If we are lucky fools – then at least we can be grateful for the ride it has been.
I am very, very lucky. And equally grateful.