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Uncertainty and Happiness

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Saturday, May 20, 2006

Have you ever had a weeknight dinner in New York City with a suburban commuter?

Odds are that the shadow of the schedule will be imprinted in his consciousness. He will be tightly aware of the clock, pacing his meal in such a way that he does not miss the 7:08 because after that one, there are no more express trains and he would be reduced to taking the 7:42 local, something that appears to be very undesirable.

He will cut the conversation short around 6:58, offer a quick handshake, then zoom out of the restaurant to catch his train with maximal efficiency. You will also be stuck with the bill. Since the meal is not finished, and the bill is not ready, your manners will force you to tell him that it’s on you.

You will also finish the cup of decaffeinated skim cappuccino all alone while staring at his empty seat and wondering why people get trapped by choice into such a life.

Now deprive him of his schedule—or randomize the time of departures of the trains so they no longer obey a fixed and known timetable. Given that what is random and what you do not know are functionally the same, you do not have to ask the New York area Metropolitan Transit Authority to randomize their trains for the purpose of the experiment: Just assume that he is deprived of knowledge of the various departure times. All he would know is that they operate about every, say, thirty-five minutes. What would he do under such a scenario? Although you might still end up paying for dinner, he would let the meal follow its natural course, then leisurely walk to the nearby station, where he would have to wait for the next train to show up. The time difference between the two situations will be a little more than a quarter of an hour.

Another way to see the contrast between a known and an unknown schedule is to compare his condition to that of another diner who has to use the subway to go home, for an equivalent distance, but without a known and fixed schedule. Subway riders are freer of their schedule, and not just because of the higher frequency of trains. Uncertainty protects them from themselves.

I am convinced that we are not made for clear-cut, well-delineated schedules. We are made to live like firemen, with downtime for lounging and meditating between calls, under the protection of protective uncertainty. Regrettably, some people might be involuntarily turned into optimizers, like a suburban child having his weekend minutes squeezed between karate, guitar lessons, and religious education.

As I am writing these lines I am on a slow train in the Alps, comfortably shielded from traveling businesspersons. People around me are either students or retired persons, or those who do not have “important appointments,” hence not afraid of what they call wasted time. To go from Munich to Milan, I picked the seven-and-a-half-hour train instead of the plane, which no self-respecting businessperson would do on a weekday, and am enjoying an air unpolluted by persons squeezed by life.

I came to this conclusion when, about a decade ago, I stopped using an alarm clock. I still woke up around the same time, but I followed my own personal clock. A dozen minutes of fuzziness and variability in my schedule made a considerable difference.

True, there are some activities that require such dependability that an alarm clock is necessary, but I am free to choose a profession where I am not a slave to external pressure. Living like this, one can also go to bed early and not optimize one’s schedule by squeezing every minute out of one’s evening. At the limit, you can decide whether to be  (relatively) poor, but free of your time, or rich but as dependent as a slave.

It took me a while to figure out that we are not designed for schedules. The realization came when I recognized the difference between writing a paper and writing a book. Books are fun to write, papers are painful. I tend to find the activity of writing greatly entertaining, given that I do it without any external constraint. You write, and may interrupt your activity, even in mid-sentence, the second it stops being attractive.

After the success of this book, I was asked to write papers by the editors of a variety of professional and scientific journals. Then they asked me how long the piece should be. What? How long? For the first time in my life, I experienced a loss of pleasure in writing!

Then I figured out a personal rule: For writing to be agreeable to me, the length of the piece needs to remain unpredictable. If I see the end of it, or if I am subjected to the shadow of an outline, I give up. I repeat that our ancestors were not subjected to outlines, schedules, and administrative deadlines.

Another way to see the beastly aspect of schedules and rigid projections is to think in limit situations. Would you like to know with great precision the date of your death? Would you like to know who committed the crime before the beginning of the movie?

Actually, wouldn’t it be better if the length of movies were kept a secret?

Good investing,

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- From Fooled By Randomness

Copyright © 2004 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Reprinted by arrangement with Random House.

Editor’s Note: Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a literary essayist and mathematical trader obsessed with the problems of uncertainty. His interests lie at the juncture of philosophy, mathematics, finance, and the social sciences, but he has stayed extremely close to the ground thanks to an uninterrupted two-decade career as a quantitative trader in New York and London.

Watch out for Taleb’s forthcoming book - called THE BLACK SWAN – due to be published in Spring 2007. Check the RandomHouse website for updates or to purchase a copy of Fooled By Randomness

Market Notes


As DailyWealth covered in our March 23rd edition, times are about to get tough for companies like WCI Communities (WCI)…

WCI is a large residential luxury real estate developer with massive exposure to South Florida. Right now, WCI has a projected development of 22,000 properties, 90% of which are in South Florida. We counted 31 projects in South Florida on their website, including over 20 condo towers.

Earlier this year, Tom flew to South Florida and posed as a condo buyer. His investigation revealed a huge supply of overpriced condos and no buyers. “All the new condos coming on the market are a massive additional source of price pressure… If you want to make a bet on a housing bubble, I suggest you zero-in on the South Florida market."

Tom suggested a short position in WCI for readers looking to profit from the inevitable meltdown. WCI has fallen 25% since then.

"This is just the beginning," said Tom on Friday.

-Brian Hunt

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