Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Felix Dennis

In his answer to the recent Edge Question 2009 (What will change everything?) epistemiology philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb touches on a topic close to my heart [from]:

People want advice on how to get rich –and pay for it. Now how not to go bust does not appear to be valid advice –yet given that over time only a minority of companies do not go bust, avoiding death is the best possible –and most robust --advice.

Taleb is fond of pointing out that the "how I did it" genre of business/entrepreneurship books is essentially useless as a source of business advice because all the writers (who he asserts consist entirely of successful, retired entrepreneurs) suffer from the survivorship bias - the only reason they're in a position to lecture anyone on how to succeed in business is they did not fail.

As huge numbers of business startups do fail and the defining component of success is not failing there is very little value to be gleaned from reading the memoirs of self-indulgent millionaires.

The exception is magazine entrepreneur Felix Dennis, owner of The Week and The First Post (both of which I have stopped reading on Taleb's advice).

The reason Dennis' book How to Get Rich was so disappointing to this reviewer was that the he found the book largely anecdotal [from the FT]:

...this book is not so much about how we could get rich as how Dennis did.

The author has the good taste to admit that you have to be a little lucky to get on the rich list - as well as brash and single-minded. Unfortunately, he also has enough bad taste to reprint some of his own poetry, most of which revolves around himself and his pots of money.

Dennis' poetry notwithstanding I found the book both highly general but also highlighted by a series of anecdotes that show just how lucky Dennis was.

His first big break was when he wrote an exclusive biography of a kung-fu practitioner Bruce Lee just before the star died in mysterious circumstances, resulting in a surge of public interest and demand just as Dennis published the book.

On another occasion when Dennis was flogging membership packs for the Bruce Lee fan club the packs were shown on TV by a journalist who felt they were bad value for money - as a result thousands more people bought them.

Yet another time it was discovered (as Dennis was en route to his Caribbean home of Mustique) that his publishing company was due to suffer a catastrophic cash-flow crisis. The discovery was due to a change in accounting software that highlighted the problem just in time to avert bankruptcy.

Dennis is entirely open that his success is in large part down to luck, but he also includes a very practical point: when it comes to getting rich, it's what you own that counts, not your prestige, not your job title, or personal power.

And Taleb is wrong to say that you don't get books that describe how not to start a business. Raconteur and new media whore Paul Carr does just that in his amusing and entertaining account of how he failed to become a wealthy and famous web tycoon entitled Bringing Nothing to the Party: True Confessions of a New Media Whore.

I'm gradually coming to suspect that entrepreneurship is for suckers - if you really want to become happy, it's best to get a well-paying and reliable job that you enjoy.

Or better yet, rather than be a hacker, be a backer. Taleb mentions somewhere in The Black Swan that investors in companies make more money overall than individual entrepreneurs.

This is perhaps the story to take away from The Second Bounce of the Ball by Apax founder Ronald Cohen.

"Success," like most other abstract qualities, is largely subjective. Life is for living, not ferretting around for dollars and euros. As Brian Micklethwait writes in his essay What the Success Books Say:

Success means having a success attitude. Success means thinking successfully. Success means having, or cultivating, a "positive mental attitude"

Putting aside my nerdy and maladjusted obsession with the wealthy I care more about living elegantly and happily than mere money.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

I am a fan of Taleb and what he and you say are true. Entrepreneurship is a sucker's game.