Nassim Taleb: Trial With Small Error | Summary and Q&A

April 22, 2013
Stanford eCorner
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Nassim Taleb: Trial With Small Error

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In this video, the speaker conducts a simple experiment to demonstrate the importance of trial and error and how it can outperform knowledge when dealing with randomness. The speaker also introduces the concept of convexity and explains how it is more significant than knowledge in certain situations. Furthermore, the speaker discusses the idea of generating rules from trial and error and emphasizes the need to understand how options work in order to benefit from randomness effectively.

Questions & Answers

Q: What kind of series did the speaker generate on their computer?

The speaker generated two kinds of series on their computer. One series represented a highly intelligent individual who knew where they were going but had no convexity in their payoff. The other series represented an individual who had no idea where they were going but had convexity in their payoff.

Q: How does trial and error work?

Trial and error can be likened to a process where one consistently experiences failures but occasionally achieves significant successes. It involves a pattern of continuous losses followed by occasional substantial gains, similar to the opposite of a coffee cup that gains from disorder and black swans.

Q: Why does trial and error outperform knowledge in situations involving randomness?

In situations involving randomness, an individual who employs trial and error tends to perform better than someone who relies on their knowledge. This is because the concept of convexity becomes more crucial than knowledge. Trial and error allows for the exploration of different options, while convexity ensures that the errors incurred are small and of minimal cost, while the gains remain large and unlimited.

Q: What can be generated from trial and error?

Trial and error can lead to the generation of rules. The speaker initially planned to come up with seven rules but later realized that it would be difficult for the audience to remember them. However, understanding how options work is crucial, as it leads to the comprehension of one essential rule that enables one to benefit from randomness and be positioned in an antifragile manner.

Q: What is the misnomer regarding trial and error?

The speaker argues that the term "trial and error" is a misnomer and proposes alternative terminology. Instead of trial and error, the speaker suggests describing it as a convex function of randomness or trial with small error. This implies that errors must be small, while the gains are significant and unlimited, positioning an individual effectively in the face of black swans and unpredictability.

Q: What is the significance of convexity?

Convexity plays a crucial role when dealing with randomness and trial and error. It is more important than knowledge in certain situations because it allows for the exploration of various options, ensures that errors are small and not repeated, and leads to substantial gains. Convexity also positions an individual to benefit from unpredictability and black swans.

Q: How does trial and error relate to being antifragile?

Trial and error, with the principle of convexity in mind, allows individuals to position themselves in an antifragile state. Antifragility refers to an environment where mistakes or errors have minimal costs and gains are substantial. By embracing trial and error with small errors and large gains, one can effectively navigate and benefit from randomness, black swans, and other unforeseen circumstances.

Q: What are the benefits of understanding options?

Understanding options is crucial to effectively benefit from randomness. It enables individuals to comprehend how to position themselves to be antifragile and exploit opportunities that arise from uncertainty. By understanding how options work, individuals can better navigate trial and error and make choices that maximize gains and minimize errors.

Q: Why did the speaker decide to generate rules from their experiment?

The speaker initially contemplated creating seven rules based on their experiment. This was likely influenced by the popularity of lists containing seven rules for various aspects of life. However, they later realized that the audience might not remember the specific rules. Consequently, the focus shifted towards understanding how options work, as it encompasses a fundamental rule that enables individuals to leverage randomness effectively.

Q: What is the relationship between trial and error and luck?

Trial and error, often perceived as relying on luck, is actually a misnomer. The speaker argues that rather than trial and error, it should be referred to as a convex function of randomness or a trial with small error. This emphasizes that while luck or randomness plays a role, it is the systematic exploration of options with small errors and significant gains that leads to success.


In this video, the speaker emphasizes the importance of trial and error in dealing with randomness. They demonstrate how trial and error, combined with the concept of convexity, can outperform knowledge. Understanding how options work is essential for effectively benefiting from randomness and becoming antifragile. The speaker also challenges the notion of trial and error being solely reliant on luck and highlights the need to consider errors and gains systematically.

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