Stick Your Neck Out
Skin in the Game

Stick Your Neck Out

Get involved, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but only if you care enough to invest your time, money or commitment. You’ve got to have skin in the game.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s hilarious, merciless and eye-opening New York Times bestseller will make you think – even though he showcases his disdain for just about every institution and educated person. Devoted conservatives and anyone who rails against the establishment might enjoy this most, but all those who heed Taleb’s advice to consider what he means – not only what he writes – will find intriguing and helpful guidance.

His message: Do things you deeply believe in and stick your neck out for them. But if you have no skin in the game, just hush. 

If you can’t put your soul into something, give it up and leave that stuff to someone else.Nassim Nicholas Taleb

GQ called Taleb, “a genuinely significant philosopher…who is able to change the way we view the structure of the world through the strength, originality and veracity of his ideas alone.” The Wall Street Journal, with a nod to Taleb’s sense of humor, said he writes “in a style that owes as much to Stephen Colbert as it does to Michel de Montaigne.”

A Stake

Beware of pundits, politicians and members of the intelligentsia, warns Taleb, an essayist, scholar and Distinguished Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. He cautions you against those who earn their living making or influencing bad decisions. Since they face no personal risk, he asserts, they make lazy choices and often don’t think through the consequences of their suggestions.

This is the core of Taleb’s thesis: those who must pay the cost of their choices usually understand the situation best. People too often stand on principle when others have skin in the game, and they don’t. Taleb offers the example of politicians and policymakers failing to make right decisions because they have no vested stake.

Revolutions are unarguably driven by an obsessive minority. And the entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people.Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The author claims that ordinary people care about living, loving and eating, not about war and high-minded principles.

 “Intellectuals Yet Idiots”

Taleb may surprise you when he avows that psychology, economics, neuroscience, diet science and astrology all demonstrably belong in the same bucket – since, he says, predictions from these areas are no more accurate than a coin toss. He lumps all practitioners of these arts under the moniker “Intellectuals Yet Idiots” (IYI), noting that they fill these and other disciplines he deems pseudoscientific. Though they are a minority, he asserts, IYIs dominate society. Taleb’s conservative slant emerges when he argues that IYIs read The New Yorker and call anyone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton a redneck or a moron.

Actions Matter

Taleb argues vehemently that people should not espouse a virtue in words and act inconsistently with that virtue. Also, he says, don’t wear your virtues on your sleeve. If you believe in an unpopular opinion, take a stand and change the world by taking risk; thus, don’t join a consulting firm – start a business.

Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will benefit, and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them. Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb clarifies that people too often transfer their risk onto others without the consent of the people they burden. He cites bankers for bringing the economy to the brink every decade or so. Then, he points out with some chagrin how they exonerate themselves while millions lose their homes and life savings. Whether policymakers, builders, doctors or bankers, Taleb claims, people must be held accountable. This returns to his central argument: responsible behavior is the only right behavior.

Few truths demonstrate the power of skin in the game more than minority-versus-majority dynamics, Taleb warns. He codifies a simple truth: the power of the committed few, historically, defeats the will of the majority, because the minority has more skin in the game. To overcome this push – say, to prevent the spread of fundamentalism – you must not tolerate intolerance. 

Don’t Do It

Having skin in the game is the only honorable way to live, Taleb repeats. He soundly advises you to find books written by people who do things, or who work with those who do things, not those who just philosophize.  

The symmetry of skin in the game is a simple rule that’s necessary for fairness and justice.Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb hints at the power of apathy. He writes that some people can maintain their freedom by not caring. Perhaps, he suggests, they really have no interest in their job, or they carry sufficient clout to thumb their noses at their hierarchy. Most people grow more pliable, Taleb laments, as they move up the ladder, because they will do almost anything to maintain their privileges and lifestyle. The more people have to lose, he surmises, the more controllable they become.  

One Good Idea

In this book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has one main, good idea, which he repeats in various forms and with various examples until he has enough of the latter to fill a book. But, unlike most one-idea self-help or pop philosophy suggestions, Taleb’s single idea is really, really good, and much of the advice he offers in pursuing that idea proves worthwhile.

He’s a provocateur and a polemicist; he seeks to stir outrage. Taleb follows the Fox News model: angry people pay attention. He is an able writer and the words fly by. This is an easy book to read and may, for some, prove highly quotable or even inspirational. The author wants you to heed ancient wisdom, follow your passions and realize the toxic effects of work in which you lack a personal stake. Though such guidance may not require an entire book as its conveyance, it’s still worthwhile advice.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb also wrote The Black Swan, Antifragile, Fooled by Randomness and The Bed of Procrustes.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews