The Rapport of Nassim Taleb

I read only to extract useful knowledge from people who know more than me. Most books are boring and only worth looking at once to extract the ideas. Of all the books I have read, Nassim Taleb’s are the only ones I must resist rereading. His writing is that enjoyable.

One of my greatest desires is to know a friend so well that I feel I can read their inner thoughts. Taleb’s writing is like that. It feels like having a conversation via his mind, not his mouth. You read the little tangents of a thought, which happen much too quickly for speech, jumping around before arriving back at their main point. Which brings me to rapport.

When you talk to a stranger, you must speak very deliberately for them to understand exactly what you mean. You cannot trust that the barista at Starbucks has the same memories of the great DJ Snake shouting how lit the music is, or that they agree Lord Baelish is the best character on Game of Thrones.

The feeling of rapport manifests in a few ways (which makes me think I do not understand it adequately; no single-sentence simplification has surfaced yet). It seems to be the result of two of more people’s minds filling in the details of the other’s words. The sensation that you are working together towards a common good is also a factor.

I recall Taleb telling the reader about saying “f**k you” to his editor and refusing changes. I have no doubt that his books would end up with bland “idea, study” format if another author made them. Instead, we get great paragraphs where Taleb explains that “A fragile object would not possibly benefit from an earthquake or a visit from your hyperactive nephew.”

Let me explain how this sentence builds rapport between the author and reader, for those of you who do not immediately see it. The “fragile object” is explained logically by a straightforward sounding example: Earthquakes are bad for them. But Taleb contrasts this humorously by mentioning “your hyperactive nephew.”

For some readers, imagination alone will trigger laughter here, even if you have no nephew. But if you do have one, and his visits are energetic, this will be extra funny. Your brain will feel as if Taleb were mentioning something specifically for you, even though he’s not.

And these types of funny asides are everywhere. You get to know him. After the nth mention of the mafia, you are not surprised when he implies that a month long stay in a hospital bed will be greatly improved by the Sopranos.

Some people will obviously like Taleb’s writing more than others. A person who harbors a private distaste for academics will likely enjoy it. But some will be biased to dislike it because of how he talks: I once noticed a statistician complaining about him, saying, “His argument boils down to ‘statisticians don’t get math'”. My guess is that the guy liked bell curves a bit too much.

What’s going on there? When Taleb’s asides cause you to fill in the gaps between things you like with dissonant associations, there is discomfort. You can’t get your self worth from your doctoral degree and simultaneously laugh at a joke when idiot doctors are the punchline. (Unless you tell yourself Taleb is referring to other doctors.)

Further, the more you read an author, the more you become like them. The more stuff they can add to your memory, the more they will influence your thoughts and behavior in the future. When the ideas are good ideas, you get a good result.

Read Taleb.


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