“By setting oneself totally free of constraints, free of thoughts, free of this debilitating activity called work, free of efforts, elements hidden in the texture of reality start staring at you; then mysteries that you never thought existed emerge in front of your eyes.” ~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Readers of this blog are likely aware of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s first two books, his 2001 debut, Fooled by Randomness, and his 2007 work, The Black Swan, which are based upon Taleb’s central idea: “our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly large deviations,” which speaks directly to the common follies of investors.

I recently read (and enjoyed) his 2010 book of aphorisms, Bed of Procrustes. In Greek mythology, Procrustes was the cruel owner of an estate where he would entertain traveling guests for dinner then offer them a place to rest. To make them fit his special bed, he would chop off their limbs or stretch them if they were too small. This works well as a metaphor for the modern world, where social conventions shape us into whatever fits its demands. And as individuals we resolve our tensions, as Taleb describes, “by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas…” (Note: Barry has a similar and interesting take on investing with what he calls the danger of narratives.)

Although Taleb covers several topics in Procrustes, the one that struck me the most was his blunt comparisons of employment to slavery, a theme that finds itself often in my own philosophical observations (and rants).

Here are a few select aphorisms from the book, followed by a few of my own notes (I’d also love to hear any of your thoughts in comments that the quotes or notes may provoke):

Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead—the more precision, the more dead you are.

Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.

The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.

You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.

My perspective is similar to that of Aristotle’s: You’re not working if you love what you do; therefore, in this case, one’s profession is not slavery. But how many are fortunate enough to love what they do? It is normal to either dislike (or, at a minimum, tolerate) one’s work. But normal is not healthy.

The tension arising from “fitting ourselves” into the Procustean bed of engaging in work that we do not love is, at the root, and in my humble opinion, the reason people invest their money and it is the creator of the modern idea of retirement.

We give up our freedom now for freedom later, a freedom we believe can only be purchased with money.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in comments…

Kent Thune is the blog author of The Financial Philosopher. You can follow Kent on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

Category: Philosophy

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

20 Responses to “Is Work Slavery? Taleb Thinks So…”

  1. Rev says:

    As with “Lean In”, these sayings seem to only apply to people who are already financially secure enough to not worry about months or years without salary, and privileged enough to assume that finding work is basically guaranteed, allowing them to focus on being highly selective. Needless to say, this may resonate with some people and perhaps most of the audience for his books but it isn’t reality for most Americans (and certainly not for the majority of the world’s population).

    I’m fortunate enough to have found good employment early in my life and to have saved & invested well, letting me be a bit choosier. Even still, I disagree with most of his comments. I know generally what I’ll be doing today and next week and I like that. I like the planning and I find uncertainty to be stressful. I doubt I’m alone. Who is he to tell me, without meeting me or asking my preferences, that I’m dead inside apparently only because he prefers a different style of life?

    The comparisons to slavery are preposterous and demean those who have lived in genuine slavery, and listing work beside heroin and carbohydrates (ugh, the medical idiocy burns!) is dismissive and insulting to the millions of people desperately seeking work and those of us who take pride in our jobs, no matter how much he may sneer.

    When he gets so many things wrong – badly, blatantly, obviously wrong – it’s hard to step back and try to dig for nuggets of wisdom.

    • Kent Thune says:

      @Rev: I agree with your general point. I would guess that Taleb is using the word slavery to describe degrees of mindlessness. My perspective is similar to yours in that routine is generally healthy. In fact, routine can give a person the freedom to use their mind MORE, not less. Where routine can become unhealthy is where life becomes so automated that there is little connection with the present moment, when people become complacent, lazy, desensitized, or just too “comfortable” to notice what is happening around them, when the choice is made not to use the mind. This is not a judgment, just an observation.

  2. Slash says:

    Meh … I’m not doing what I love, but I do like having an income. Most work isn’t fun. Stuff has gotta get done that is boring, not particularly enlightening or earth-shattering, occasionally dangerous (not my job, I work in an air-conditioned office).

    I don’t consider it slavery, per se, but when I think of people who have fabulous jobs that they inherited from their wealthy parents, it does make me feel kinda resentful for every boring second of my employment (which has been most of them).

    I make up for it by not checking email when I’m not at work. Certainly not on weekends. Screw that. I don’t make enough money or have an impressive enough title to justify thinking about it 24/7. They don’t own all my time, just the part of it I spend actually at work.

    I don’t like the system all that much, but would love to hear this guy’s (or anybody’s) idea for changing it quickly and permanently, short of a Libyan-style revolution.

  3. nicklang says:

    Wow, pretty deep. Lucky to have a job that I love, straight commission, reporting to no one but myself. 38 years now and good to know my profession (corporate recruiting in my case) is not slavery.

  4. florin says:

    I call bs on the third one: “If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead—the more precision, the more dead you are.”

    The fact that famous (for the right reasons) people as diverse as Kant, Benjamin Franklin, Haruki Murakami … had or have apparently regular schedules has nothing to do with how alive they were or are. The important things happen in one’s head, this has nothing to do with how the day looks like on the outside. Even in situations when that daily schedule is not one of your own choosing – I am reminded of a wonderful Romanian book “The journal of happiness”, an auto-biography; the author, Nicolae Steinhardt, imprisoned by the Communist regime, became religious and discovered happiness as an internal state while in prison. Mind you, I am not religious at all

  5. akreitman says:

    After trading for 20 years, two best sellers and a hedge fund he has to have a net worth in the 10s of millions. He can afford to look down on work and do nothing but eat chocolate bon bons the rest of his life.

    • Mario says:

      Makes sense. Maybe one of the best ways to never be a slave to work is convincing people to buy your books about not being a slave to work…

  6. orsogrigio says:

    It depends on you : if one accepts to do a job he doesn’t like, I think, will be a (self) slave. And, in my opinion, simply deserves it. The key is why to accept a job you do not like ? From need ? From market conditions ? ‘Carmina panem non dant’ is it true ? I do not think. There is no professional work in the world that cannot give you the bread you need : but you have to be really a pro in that area. On the contrary an average performance, a tasteless performance, is just a commodity in the ‘paid worked hours’ market, and if there are few ‘paid worked hours’ available … well you’re fired. Please, let be clear: each of us knows exactly two things: what he could do, and what he actually does and what he should do to master his job … I remember a guy who had a love for … mines. I spoke with him when a large mine (a railroad tunnel in the Alps) was almost finished. He told me something like ‘this has been the best I ever dug, when I’ll find one like that again ?’. Digging mines, studying Bizantine dressing, or trading commodities in my opinion does not matter: what matters is what each individual really feels to do. Cutting short really makes a slave, of yourself …

  7. Kent Thune says:

    @nicklang: I can relate. When I became self-employed at age 37, I considered myself “retired.” I wouldn’t consider myself “free” in the absolute sense (who is?) but I will never be a slave to any conventional form of employment.

    @akreitman: I thought the same thing after reading Taleb’s Bed of Procrustes but I didn’t want to include too much opinion in the post. It is certainly easy to look down on work when one does not need to work. Taleb is now calling himself a philosopher. He is also fond of Socrates, which ironically had a near-opposite life: Socrates never really “worked” but was never rich in financial terms.

  8. ema82 says:

    I think most of these points would have applied to hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers just as well as they do to the modern salaried employee. Those people certainly knew most of the times how each one of their (repetitive) days would unfold, they experienced competitive pressure, they had no alternative career opportunities nor retirement, and I bet their “job” was invading their minds all the time at unofficial hours and at night too. Perhaps the ability to complain and feel alienated about work is a sign that we are now so advanced as to conceive of fixing these “human condition” issues.

    • Kent Thune says:

      @ema82: I absolutely agree with your main points. However, the hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers probably did not have quite as mindless an existence as the “normal” modern.

      For example, their days (and lives in general) didn’t follow a routine quite as precisely as 21st century man, who is a “slave” to alarm clocks, work hours, fixed vacation, and everything else that is fixed or planned in terms of the clock or calendar. We even plan far in advance for school, holidays, retirement and so on…

      I especially like your final point: “Perhaps the ability to complain and feel alienated about work is a sign that we are now so advanced as to conceive of fixing these ‘human condition’ issues.”


  9. LiberTea says:

    Gosh, I think about the last 40,000+ years of human existence.
    Did hunters and gatherers ‘love’ risking their lives to kill a European Bison, or in chasing a hare into brambles?
    In recent centuries, did farmer’s on the Eurasian steppes ‘love’ plowing and sowing, and cultivating, and harvesting–hopefully before an early frost?
    Today and for all human times, do the rice cultures of Southern and Eastern Asia ‘love’ sloshing around in leech-laden paddies?
    Or are they all ‘slaves’ to their lifestyles?

    Communities that survive do what they need to do in order to survive, a kind of passion, if you will, I guess.

    For most of human history, the vast majority of persons have been (and still are) at a near subsistence level of survival. This is the prevailing perennial standard of existence.

    Meditating on the Taleb text provided for discussion is an affluence-enabled luxury of the few.

    • orsogrigio says:

      Let’s imagine you (or myself, it doesn’t matter for the discussion) are a brain surgeon (or a scientist or …) and you just finished a complex, delicate and successful surgery (or, of course, the equivalent in each and any field). Do you think you satisfaction and self esteem at the moment is different from the one of the plowman in 1214 looking backwards to the straight, regular sills he has made in the day ? The point is quite more subtle : NOW community can survive without giving you that ‘close feeling’ of utility of your sweat. The plowman knew that his survival was directly in link with his sills. Now this direct feeling is quite dampened, so as soon as you drop in the ‘average work quality’ you drop as well into boredom, and thus feel ‘enslaved’. But I have to tell you that there is something unknown and never experienced coming (and quickly) : technology (robotics, mainly, but not just that) is going to produce ‘richness’ (that is all we need, from rice to cars to housing and power generation) without manpower (at the extreme, of course: really with a smaller and smaller number of workers). Since richness will be ‘automatic’ unemployment will be huge, but subsidies will be as huge. Human beings will be paid for NOT working. A world upside down, you may say, but it’s the world coming. To survive there, I think, you have to have something inside yourself, a, let’s say, a passion for something, anything, even plowing (brain surgery, I think, will no longer be available to shacky human hands …)

  10. ravenchris says:

    Nice to see the truth peeking out.

  11. kevin r says:

    Using slavery misses the mark, I think. People in this society are not punished by their owners for not working. Kind of the opposite, in fact, as they would be given their freedom in that situation. A better metaphor might be addiction. It even comes with its own obscure support in Greek myth, ala the Lotus-Eaters.

    From my standpoint work is quite productive and often times does require thinking and creativity. Our rewards for work, on the other hand seem to be more closely aligned to the evils of Taleb. Be they hours of TV, pounds of flavorful calories or the mind numbing pills of our generation, our additions to these flowers is what destroys the soul as we let them take up (waste?) our precious time in this world.

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  13. Vince says:

    Kent, this is I would say there’s absolutely no shame in having a traditional job, structure and a monthly paycheck. However, true ingenuity and innovation must be driven by some level of free thinking, whether that is in a job or in a self-employment scenario. For employer to get the most out of their employees they must be willing to allow them to think outside of the normal boundaries of their day to day. Likewise, many individuals have had a great deal of success when their back is against the wall, when the comfort of a regular paycheck is no longer a safety net.

    The other point I wanted to make is that even when I am doing things I love there are times when it still feels like work. Nevertheless, at the end of the day I am more satisfied and proud of my achievement when it is something I love. It feels like I’m contributing to more of a common good and helping others, versus furthering the agenda of a corporation. In this sense maybe I can connect with the slavery comparison…furthering the cause of someone or something else even if you don’t truly care about it or identify with it just for the sake of obtaining money.

    • Kent Thune says:

      I agree, Vince. I generally love what I do but there are still moments, hours, or even days where I am doing work that I do not prefer.

      Also, people can be generally happy and fulfilled in work, even if they do not “love it.” Furthermore, to paraphrase Freud, people do not seek work as their highest form of satisfaction anyway (they seek it elsewhere) and as long as their “professional activity” is a chosen one, any dissatisfaction will not necessarily subtract from one’s ability to find happiness. Therefore work is not slavery if the individual is not FORCED to do something he hates. And, in many cases, people willingly submit themselves to doing work that they may “like” or merely “tolerate” but it is still a means to acquire their happiness (by earning the money to do it) and they consider themselves happy.

      In different words, in a given instance where one does not love what they do, as long as the work is chosen, it does not erode at one’s overall well-being, and it helps the individual accomplish non-work goals in life… satisfaction and fulfillment can be accomplished.

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