Modern Education Breeds “Intellectuals, Yet Idiots”

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Skin in the Game" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does Taleb mean by “Intellectual, Yet Idiot”? What are the defining traits of someone whom Taleb would consider Intellectual, Yet Idiot?

“Intellectual, Yet Idiot” is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to refer to a type of person who lacks “skin in the game”—that, who is averse to risk. Taleb argues that Intellectual, Yet Idiots create flawed systems because the concept of skin in the game is totally foreign to them. They would never think to dissect a situation in terms of risk, and as a result, they fundamentally misunderstand many aspects of life.

In this article, we’ll discuss Taleb’s concept of “Intellectual, Yet Idiot” and their key characteristics.

Intellectuals, Yet Idiots Are Risk-Averse

The defining characteristic of Intellectuals, Yet Idiots is an aversion to skin in the game. They will never take risks if they can help it.

To illustrate, Taleb writes that the Intellectual, Yet Idiot “studies grammar before speaking a language.” This sums up the character nicely. Intellectuals, Yet Idiots want to avoid the uncomfortable experience of speaking a language poorly. They would much rather spend their time and energy studying rules of grammar in a safe environment free of consequences. This is a far less effective way to learn a language than to go out and risk embarrassment talking to native speakers. However, Intellectuals, Yet Idiots fail to acknowledge this.

Risk Aversion as Habit Trigger

Risk aversion and fear are some of the greatest obstacles in our lives, but they also offer a hidden gift. In his book The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer, Steven Kotler argues that many of the world’s top performers have trained themselves to instinctively move toward discomfort instead of away from it—what he calls the “habit of ferocity.”To illustrate, Kotler recounts the story of a track coach who trained his runners to snap into perfect form whenever they began running uphill. At times when other competitors would react to discomfort by getting sloppy with their form, bodies instinctively trying to conserve energy, the track team would speed up—an antifragile mindset, one might say. According to Kotler, once this became a habit, the team would eventually lean into discomfort without even realizing it.Kotler argues that peak performers apply this habit to every aspect of life. Discomfort becomes a compass pointing to success.

Intellectuals, Yet Idiots Are Educated Yet Ignorant

Intellectuals, Yet Idiots earn degrees from prestigious universities without ever needing to verify their knowledge in real life, then get jobs that similarly fail to require skin in the game. These are jobs that involve theorizing and giving advice, with no penalty inflicted if their theories and advice are wrong—Taleb lists journalists, consultants, and university faculty members.

Intellectuals, Yet Idiots assume that they know more than they actually do. Without direct consequences for their misunderstandings, Intellectuals, Yet Idiots never have any reason to question their actions and beliefs. For this reason, Taleb asserts that Intellectuals, Yet Idiots make worse decisions than the average laborer.

As firm believers in the potential of human rationality, Intellectuals, Yet Idiots create systems in which educated decision-makers are able to exert influence and in which accountability is a lesser concern. Since they fail to factor in skin in the game, they see distant educated decision-makers as more effective than less educated decision-makers who are directly involved with the consequences of the decisions made.

The Curse of Learning

According to Taleb, Intellectuals, Yet Idiots suffer from what he calls the “curse of learning,” as described in The Black Swan. Because the world is so complex, even the most experienced experts are often unable to accurately learn from it—yet because of their education, they vastly overestimate their own understanding, resulting in bigger mistakes than individuals with less education would make.

The book Superforecastingdocuments this same phenomenon. Researchers found that the vast majority of experts are no better at predicting significant world events than someone randomly guessing. Additionally, despite being wrong as often as anyone else, experts were far more likely to make extreme predictions within their field—they frequently declared events either impossible or 100% certain to occur.Experts’ blindness of their own inadequacies supports Taleb’s argument against Intellectualism. When experts are so frequently and extremely mistaken, systems need to be built around skin in the game so that errors can be corrected.

Without Skin in the Game, False Appearances Cause Systemic Collapse

Intellectuals, Yet Idiots and their followers aren’t mistaken in believing that systems can be improved by intelligent and experienced decision-makers. However, in the absence of skin in the game, this reliance on human judgment is exactly what causes systems to collapse.

We’re going to discuss two principles that explain why this is:

  • Principle #1: Without skin in the game, appearances matter more than reality.
  • Principle #2: Appearances often contradict reality.

Principle #1: Without Skin in the Game, Appearances Matter More Than Reality

In systems that incorporate skin in the game, it’s obvious what works and what doesn’t. Your start-up company either succeeds and earns you a profit, or it fails, forcing you to shut down.

Without skin in the game, however, third-party judges and administrators are forced to conduct reviews and decide what is effective. If you’re one of many in the marketing department of a massive corporation, your manager has to judge how much value you individually are creating.

By definition, human judges mean that how you are perceived becomes the determining factor of your success. In the right setting, if you never get any work done, but always seem to be doing work, you could earn a promotion.

Principle #2: Appearances Often Contradict Realty

Taleb argues the idea that “things are not always what they seem” to the extreme: appearances often convey the exact opposite of the truth.

For example, business plans and scientific proposals that cleanly explain why you can expect success are more likely to fail. The point of plans and proposals is to create the appearance of competence, typically with the hope of selling the business or securing funding. Counterintuitively, this indicates less personal investment in the project itself.

The best businesses and scientists embrace the fact that it’s impossible to predict everything from the outset, instead hedging their bets and organically growing and adapting as circumstances change. The less you understand why something is successful, the more reliable it probably is.

(Shortform note: While Taleb insists that all business plans are good for is maintaining the false appearance of certain success, many entrepreneurs find them to be valuable tools to clarify their thinking about their business. Author and entrepreneur Ash Maurya is known for creating the Lean Canvas, adapted from the Business Model Canvas to better enhance internal perspective and adapt to changing circumstances. The Lean Canvas fits on one page, limiting the entrepreneur’s ability to over-plan—a minimalist approach Taleb would appreciate.)

Similarly, successful professionals who seem extraordinarily confident, intellectual, or put-together, in many cases, are at times only successful because of their ability to manipulate their image. They’re better at cultivating the appearance of expertise than true expertise.

This principle also works in reverse: successful people who don’t appear successful are usually the most skilled. A professional who succeeds without “looking the part” has to overcome the negative impressions he gives to others—making it more likely that he’s highly competent. 

Imagine a pimply teen who looks like he’s never set foot outside who earned $300,000 within a year of starting his own company. His soaring profits are even more indicative of his skill considering that he was likely underestimated by everyone he did business with.

(Shortform note: Studies have shown that attractive people have been given more advantages than you would expect. Employers are willing to pay 10% more to attractive employees, attractive politicians are more likely to be elected, and attractive teachers cause their students to better retain information. Attractive CEOs not only get paid more, they win more negotiations, and result in greater stock prices—when they’re hired and even when they appear on TV. However, this doesn’t always mean that attractive people are less skilled, as Taleb argues. The preferential treatment given to attractive people as they grow, as well as the accompanying boost in confidence, result in a very real boost in skills and achievement.)

False Appearances Cause Collapse

Due to false appearances, human judges are unavoidably fallible—thus, It’s the system’s ability to eliminate ineffective judges that drives progress. This is only attained through skin in the game.

Decision-makers who have something to lose for poor judgments either learn from their mistakes or are filtered out by the system. If an entrepreneur is misled by false appearances, their business will go belly-up.

Without skin in the game, entire professions can become dominated by people whose competent-looking public image is nothing but smoke and mirrors, along with ideas that seem smart on paper but crumble when applied in the real world. This is a vicious cycle—as ineffective people and ideas fail to get filtered out, the institution’s image of what success looks like drifts further away from reality.

Eventually, these industries completely fail to recognize how to accomplish anything desirable, and the system collapses. In the next few sections of our guide, we’ll describe how this is happening in several specific industries and institutions.

Modern Education Breeds “Intellectuals, Yet Idiots”

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "Skin in the Game" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Skin in the Game summary:

  • Why having a vested interest is the single most important contributor to human progress
  • How some institutions and industries were completely ruined by not being invested
  • Why it's unethical for you to not have skin in the game

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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