Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 53, is distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. Following a career in finance, he is now the best-selling author of books that include The Black Swan and Antifragile.
What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
I was utopian. I found adults and adulthood fundamentally corrupt, self-serving and unclear. I still do but I now find the utopian even more harmful.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
French lycée, whatever that means. University but largely autodidact as almost never attended classes. University is a good place to drink, make friends and discuss books, nothing else. But the education one gets there is way too commoditised.
Who was or still is your mentor?
My maternal aunt and paternal grand-uncle. They understand collective wisdom, the type of mistakes one may regret as opposed to good mistakes. I also have inverse mentors: people I learnt to not imitate.
How physically fit are you?
I lift heavy weights and sprint but I am so bad at it that I develop severe injuries. Like now.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Both concepts are modernist nonsense. Success is about honour, feeling morally calibrated, absence of shame, not what some newspaper defines from an external metric.
How politically committed are you?
Independent, with a Burkean bent, anti-centralised state, anti-large corporations, anti-debt – so largely localist, pro-city states and green.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
Indeed. I drive a hybrid, moving into an electric car. I only drink tap water, never consume food that’s travelled. Have been moving many lectures to teleconferencing.
Do you have more than one home?
Not really, one in the US plus a shared family house in Lebanon. I prefer hotel rooms.
In what place are you happiest?
It is atmosphere-dependent. I am happy everywhere except in places where I see glitz and rich farts. I am happiest in Brooklyn, where the concentration of rich farts is minimal.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Books, books and books.
What ambitions do you still have?
To complete a multi-volume mathematical expression of the ideas of the more philosophical works, with rigorous derivations and proofs. Volume one is complete.
What drives you on?
I want to put my works under one title, Incerto, in 10 volumes – six philosophical and four mathematical – so people can grasp it all as a single piece.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
I’ve learnt to never compromise.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
That I am unable to destroy the economics establishment, the press.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?
That I am not ashamed to be judged by my 20-year-old self. I swerved on occasion but ultimately stayed in line with what he wanted me to be.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
This is the ethos of Antifragile: thinking about such an event every day so you reduce fragility to adverse events. I’ve lived in preparation for that possibility. Plan B is to move to college dorms. But nothing would be more devastating than reduced access to a technical library.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
I believe in a stoic approach to suicide as one ends life on one’s own terms. You need to control destiny. I did not come to this world to live for ever. Make room for others.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
Life is not about self-satisfaction but the satisfaction of a sense of duty. It is all or nothing. Nine out of 10 would be total failure.
‘Antifragile’, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is published in paperback by Penguin, £8.99