Skin in the Game by Taleb: Not as Good as Antifragile

Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I don’t exaggerate when I say that his book Antifragile is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read. It changed the way I view my life, and gave articulation to many half formed ideas I had swirling around in my mind.

For example, I used to struggle to explain to my friends why I felt civilization was too “specialized” and that I didn’t think humanity could recover in case of an asteroid strike. After absorbing the ideas in Antifragile, I can now more easily articulate my reasons for thinking. It took me over a year to finish the book.

So I bought his next book “Skin in the Game”. Perhaps the biggest giveaway was that I finished it in less than a month. Slower than many other books I read, for sure. But unlike Antifragile, which was replete with one innovative idea after another, Skin in the Game feels a lot less intellectually satisfying. It’s more “ranty” than his previous books, and it’s too specific to our modern world. It won’t stand the test of time.

While the ideas in Antifragile even helped me solidify my new website WP-Tweaks (I now have “fuck you” money), Skin in the Game reads more like a social commentary on everything Taleb is angry about in the current world. As a result, it lacks the depth of insights provided by his previous books and is less applicable to everyone.

Taleb mentions somewhere that an author should be known for one book. And perhaps I’m being unfair by holding this against Skin in the Game – surely it’s not possible to duplicate genius like that a second time.

Skin in the Game has one central idea – the notion that people should have a personal stake when their decisions affect other people. Taleb tries to stretch this idea out, but I feel he reaches too far. For example, at one point he demonstrates admiration for warlords and Putin (a wolf amongst sheep). But in Antifragile, Taleb expresses his contempt for those who transfer their fragility onto others.

Strongmen like Putin might have skin in the game, yes. The problem is that it’s the wrong game! The rest of us just want to get by and live our lives. That’s our game. Putin’s game is to stay in power by any means necessary. Those two objectives are not aligned, and are two completely different games.

I can see where he’s coming from though. His point is that “decision making by committee” is wasteful, and nothing good can come from it. This is because committees don’t have skin in the game. But a popular strongman like Caesar destroyed Rome’s republic that had been happily standing strong for 400 years. Taleb’s affinity for charismatic leaders and strongmen comes through in his writings.

I don’t know have the answers of course. I don’t know the fine balance between “decision making by committee” and the unbridled authority of a warlord. However, my preference would be gridlock. I like it when governments are paralyzed by indecision, because it reduces the chances of harm – another one of Taleb’s principles. “First, do no harm” as he mentions with reference to the Hippocratic oath.

But Taleb doesn’t appear to demonstrate any awareness of the conflict between these two central ideas – ideas that he himself expounds in Antifragile. If anything, I would say that Skin in the Game is too passionate, and not level headed enough. Hot headedness is boring. Insulting people is uninteresting. Any idiot can curse.

I was stunned by Antifragile. Skin in the Game was far less revelatory.

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