Skin, Swans, and Success

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It is rare that you get something good in a graduation speech.  Many a time, they are the basic “you are the future” and “things are tough, but you will figure them out” sorts of warm and fuzzy that most parents and alumni like to hear.  Not really anything new, or imaginative is said, and if the speech is given by a politician, it most likely will have a slant towards something going on the world or government, without much of *real* big picture view that is needed.

A recent graduation speech by Nassim Taleb is the kind of speech everyone needs to hear at their commencement.  Nassim Taleb is a brilliant and iconoclastic polymath/scholar/former trader/statistician/economist who calls BS on stuff he think is wrong, and who is a no nonsense sort of thinker.  He is probably most famous for the black swan theory (laid out in a book), which explains a lot of the craziness in our financial markets.

The speech is great, for it lays out some critical things in life.   Two of the items the short speech that really hit a note:

  1. Have skin in the game – don’t bet on things/get involved when your decision doesn’t affect you.  For this reason, commenting publicly on things where you don’t have any skin in the game is not recommended.
  2. Defining success in this world; this piece was the most important.

The first point is good, because it says that without skin in the game, the capability of you to care about decisions you are not involved personally with declines rapidly.   This can be applied to a great deal in modern America; how many people making decisions are actually affected by what they do or say?  Very few, and it shows in the level of quality decision making that happens.

The second point might be something that might be said in other standard commencement speeches, but Taleb cuts to the chase, and goes to the root of being successful:

For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.

For many of us, trudging along in the modern world, who may see us as unsuccessful (since we aren’t rich or famous), this bit is well worth remembering.

Although it might be too late for a planet with 7+ billion people on it to continue supporting such a number, a perspective like this is still very much important.  It also ties in with Guy McPherson’s “live a life of excellence” – do not live out the majority of your remaining life not doing something you are not passionate about, and are not proud of.

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