Solon’s Warning…More Thoughts On Success and Failure

July 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

I’m re-reading Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness. There are a handful of books I think worth revisiting every year or two to see how your refined understanding of the world – those things you’ve learned since reading it the last time – influence how you interpret it. It can become a measure of how you’ve matured in your learning quest. Taleb’s book(s) belongs in that rarefied air.

I’m not sure what it means about my own intelligence or reading comprehension level, but it just seems fresh with each new pass. Like I’m reading it for the first time though this is my third time flipping through its well-worn pages.

This will not be a book report. I wanted to highlight a quote that appears before the first chapter and relate it back to a previous post here.

Solon’s Warning

Taleb retells an apocryphal story from ancient Greece in which King Croesus (the richest man) is making a futile attempt to get Solon (the wisest man) to agree that the former’s wealth and success mean he must be the happiest.

Solon responded:

The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man’s happiness that may yet, in the course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity has [guaranteed] continued happiness until the end we may call happy.

These are the thoughts it inspires (mostly self-plagiarized from a previous post):

Thoughts on Success and Failure

What is success? Is it really an outcome? Too often we think of it as a destination as if it were a platform we land on and upon which we reside forever more. I think we would find that most people we consider successful don’t think of it as such a static thing. It’s very dynamic. And it’s not accurate to use the term in such a general way. I would argue it’s just not a precise use of the term.

Perhaps you accomplished a specific thing successfully. You employed strong thinking in an investment decision process that produced an outcome with high returns. That was an example of being successful, but does it define you as a “success.” Or say you produced a string of these good outcomes with high returns. Again, those are multiple instances of success, but are you now a “success?”

You can have a thousand such “successes” followed by a single “failure.” How are you then labeled? Or you have a thousand failures followed by a single success.

Such labels are meaningless. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker profile of Nassim Taleb  [ah, this is why these thoughts reconnect for me a few months later…neural synapses, funny things] several years ago. (Click here to read Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster Into an Investment Strategy.) Taleb revered Victor Niederhoffer as one of the world’s best traders and a brilliant thinker. Niederhoffer had a respected fund with investors desperate to include their capital in his investments. He had more wealth than most people could hope for.

Niederhoffer had it all. Until he didn’t. He “blew up”, as traders put it, when the strategy he had used with such success for a decade suddenly didn’t work. He lost everything. One day he was a “success” and the next he was a “failure.” Well, that would be the description if you chose to think of it in such “destination” terms.

It all brings to mind the story of the Taoist farmer. I had a vague recollection of the tale, and googling it produced this version (from this source):

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”

A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”

The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”

A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.

Luck is fleeting. It is a point-in-time result. What we perceive as luck today, we may view as the root of great misfortune tomorrow. The same reasons we might have used to consider a person lucky today we might use to pity him tomorrow.

So goes success, and so the path is circuitous and the arrow points forever further.

Henry Blodget

I’m hesitant to admit such a fascination with him, but after several posts quoting or featuring him, I must now confess a bit of an obsession with Henry Blodget. To refresh on his story, you may turn to Wikipedia here.

It helps to know the back story to understand the context of why he posted this image on his business news aggregator Business Insider back in April:


The grit required to stage a comeback (it’s in process) after being laid so low is a much better story – a Greek tragedy reversed – than a straight line success story.

Paul Dryden


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