7 investing mantras by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that make him an outlier in the world of investments

7 investing mantras by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that make him an outlier in the world of investments

As of November 2023, the net worth of this prolific author, who has also served as a professor in numerous universities, is approximated to be around $2 million. Taleb stands apart from the majority of prominent investors who emphasize solely on fundamentals in their investment approach. 

Unlike these investors, he, a successful figure in the field, contends that many investors tend to downplay the influence of randomness and unforeseen events in both their personal lives and the financial markets. He criticizes conventional risk models and strategies that hinge on predictable patterns and averages, asserting their fundamental flaws. Instead, he advocates for unconventional concepts such as “black swans” (highly improbable events with significant consequences) and “antifragility” (the capacity to thrive amidst volatility and disorder).

Although his ideas may disrupt conventional norms and provoke discomfort, they unquestionably provide valuable insights for investors. Here are some key insights gleaned from his work:

Embrace unpredictability: Avoid fixating on exact predictions or “guaranteed” outcomes. Stay prepared for the unknown and the unpredictable.

Be cautious of concealed risks: Go beyond concentrating solely on evident dangers. Be vigilant for potential black swans hidden beneath the surface.

Emphasize the value of optionality: Favour flexibility and adaptability over inflexible plans. Allow space for mistakes and adjustments.

Strive for antifragility: Construct systems and strategies that not only endure shocks but thrive in the face of adversity.

Taleb’s books offer a wealth of insights for investors aiming to navigate the frequently unpredictable realm of risk and uncertainty. His emphasis on critical thinking, especially concerning low-probability events, provides a refreshing perspective in a world overly fixated on averages and normalcy. Presented below are seven of the most valuable pieces of investment guidance from Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Anticipate Black Swan occurrences

Taleb’s initial work, “The Black Swan,” delves into the concept of black swan events and their pertinence to contemporary occurrences. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a vivid illustration that low-probability, high-impact events can manifest, leading to widespread consequences.

There is no universally applicable solution for black swans. Nevertheless, Taleb’s emphasis on diversification and prudent asset allocation holds significant merit for investors as they stem from the inherent unpredictability of black swan events. These events, characterized by low probability and high impact, can catch even the most prepared investors off guard. Therefore, it becomes crucial to have a portfolio that is resilient enough to withstand the unforeseen.

Exercise caution with financial experts

Taleb in his book “The Black Swan” asserted “The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know”. This impactful quote from Taleb directly addresses the core of his criticism toward the conventional, expert-driven approach to investing.

Taleb isn’t advocating for the outright dismissal of experts. Instead, he encourages us to recognize the inherent limitations in their knowledge. While they may excel in their specific domains, predicting the future—especially regarding unpredictable black swan events—renders them just as uncertain as anyone else.

Relying blindly on financial experts can pose risks, fostering overconfidence and a deceptive sense of security that leaves investors exposed to unforeseen risks. Rather, it’s essential to approach expert advice with a discerning perspective, acknowledging it as a singular component of the puzzle, not the entirety of the picture.

Save enough for a rainy day

How many investors recognize the shared emphasis on “survival first” in the investment philosophies of both Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Warren Buffett, despite their differing strategies?

Taleb, centering on black swan events and unforeseeable risks, underscores the importance of strategies that prioritize capital preservation as the foremost objective. He contends that enduring market crashes and phases of heightened volatility are paramount for achieving long-term success. His guiding principle of “survival first” encapsulates his conviction in constructing antifragile portfolios capable of enduring, and potentially thriving in turbulent conditions.

The interpretation and application of the “survival first” principle reveal a captivating nuance in the perspectives of both Buffett and Taleb. Buffett’s emphasis lies predominantly on surviving within the market, whereas Taleb adopts a more expansive perspective that includes not only financial markets but also the unpredictability of life. He acknowledges that factors such as illness, accidents, job loss, or personal tragedies can profoundly affect our investment capacities and long-term financial stability.

It’s essential to have a personal stake in the venture

In Taleb’s most recent work, “Skin in the Game”, he delves into a captivating exploration of a fundamental principle: The connection between shared risk and shared rewards. He posits that this principle is vital not only for fostering fairness and justice but also for enhancing efficiency, accountability, and the development of resilient systems.

His analysis centres on scenarios in which individuals or institutions enjoy substantial advantages while being shielded from potential drawbacks. He labels these scenarios “asymmetrical systems”, where the gains are privatized, but the risks are socialized. According to him, this dynamic results in imprudent decision-making, moral hazard, and, ultimately, systemic fragility.

Introducing “skin in the game” essentially involves ensuring that those who derive benefits from a system also shoulder some of the potential risks.

Risk tends to accumulate over a period

Taleb’s stress on the compounding aspect of risk holds paramount significance for investors, particularly when considering his “skin in the game” principle. He posits that minor, seemingly inconsequential risks can accrue over time, potentially resulting in catastrophic consequences if not effectively addressed.

This holds especially true in the realm of investments, where even modest losses can escalate into substantial setbacks when compounded over years or decades. Taleb’s cautions about risking money that one cannot afford to lose stem from precisely this concern. He encourages investors to consider the enduring repercussions of their choices and refrain from pursuing propositions with high risks and high rewards that might render them financially exposed.

Taking small risks can help

Taleb’s investment principles are frequently misinterpreted as endorsing complete risk avoidance. However, he is not advocating for total risk aversion; rather, he promotes a nuanced and strategic approach to taking risks.

He underscores the difference between small, manageable risks and large, potentially catastrophic ones. According to him, small risks represent opportunities for learning, adaptation, and even antifragility. It’s akin to constructing an immune system for your portfolio. Engaging in controlled risks and encountering occasional setbacks can aid in building resilience and improving your ability to navigate future uncertainties.

Adopt a Barbell Strategy in investment

Taleb’s recommended barbell approach to investing is an unconventional and thought-provoking strategy that harmonizes seamlessly with his risk management philosophy. This method involves allocating the majority of your assets (around 85-90%) to “safe havens” such as treasury bills, AAA-rated bonds, and cash. This establishes a robust foundation capable of weathering market volatility and safeguarding your capital. The conservative portion serves as an anchor, guaranteeing a financial safety net, even if your speculative endeavours face challenges.

The remaining 10-15 per cent of your portfolio transforms into the arena for “asymmetric bets” – ventures characterized by high risk and high potential rewards, such as options, venture capital, or individual growth stocks. Taleb advocates embracing the prospect of substantial gains, even amid the possibility of significant losses in this speculative realm. The crucial aspect is to maintain this speculative portion at a size that won’t compromise your overall financial stability.

The barbell strategy provides numerous benefits for investors including:

Diminished downside risk: The bulk of your capital is protected by conservative assets, mitigating the repercussions of market downturns.

Asymmetric potential: The limited speculative segment enables engagement in high-growth opportunities, offering the potential for significant returns, even in the face of failures in some ventures.

Psychological reassurance: Being aware of a secure foundation can offer peace of mind, enabling you to take measured risks without the apprehension of financial devastation.

Nevertheless, the barbell strategy isn’t suitable for everyone. It necessitates a significant risk tolerance and the capacity to endure potential losses in the speculative portion. Additionally, it requires continuous monitoring and rebalancing to uphold the intended asset allocation.

Taleb’s methodology may not resonate with everyone. His unconventional style and refusal to conform to mainstream thinking can be divisive. Nevertheless, the potency and uniqueness of his ideas are undeniable. If you’re an investor seeking to surpass conventional wisdom and cultivate a more resilient approach to risk, Taleb’s books and investment principles are certainly worth exploring.


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Published: 10 Dec 2023, 10:23 AM IST

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