The irony is not lost on me that much of what we go through in our life happens to be a Procrustean bed.
They are born, then put into a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes they go to what is called “work” in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box; they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box; they talk about “thinking outside the box”; and when they die, they are put in a box. All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes.” ~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb
We may fight against it but over time, we come to accept that when we go outside of what is expected of us in society, society will always find a way to make us fit into its boundaries.
I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms published by Penguin Books in 2011.
You might be thinking, “Who was Procrustes?”
In Greek mythology, Procrustes was an evil man. Let’s face it, he was a serial killer. He owned a house between Athens and Eleusis and he entertained travellers in cruel ways. He would host a lovely dinner and then invited his guests to spend the night in a bed he had made. He wanted the bed to fit the guest exactly. If his guest was too short, he would stretch them to fit. If his guest was too big, he would hack off their legs. Of course, Procrustes met his own fate thanks to hero, Theseus (the minotaur slayer) who gave him a taste of his own medicine.
But what does this myth mean?
To me it means that in life there are many unknown unknowns. As things are becoming increasingly complex and random, humans try to create ways to try and understand it and then impose these on others.
Taleb explains it as, ” we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and the things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp compartmentalised ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies and prepackaged narratives, which on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit – but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realise that we are changing the brains of school children through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.”
Taleb has collected his aphorisms (sayings the contain truth) from all his other books into this one book across themes such as:
- Counter Narratives
- Theseus, Or Living or The Paleo Life
- The Ludic Fallacy and Domain Dependence
- Fooled By Randomness
- The Universal and the Particular
- Charming and Less Charming Sucker Problems
- and more.
Don’t you love these themes? They’re tongue in cheek but they go to the heart of the matter.
Here’s some of my favourite aphorisms (although I highlighted most of the book)
There are so many aphorisms in this book and they all make you sit up and take note for their truth. For many, it’s likely you already knew these deep down but hadn’t vocalised these.
I did a video book review recently so if you’re interested in watching that, check it out below.
I love how Taleb writes, I love how he provokes with nuggets of truth, I love how he challenges us to not accept the status quo and to question. Highly recommended.