American University of Beirut

Nassim Taleb

Philosophical essayist, scholar, statistician, former trader, and risk specialist, Nassim Taleb spent his life focusing on problems with probability. He has shaken the world of policy making and forecasting by standing its conventional logic on its head with his book The Black Swan, considered one of the most influential books since the Second World War.

Taleb is of Lebanese–or as he prefers, Levantine–birth and extraction. He is widely known as the out-of-the-box thinker who predicted the 2008 financial crisis and developed the theory of black swan events, which refers to unexpected, game-changing, world-altering events of large magnitude and their dominant role in history. Taleb has shown that, because of these black swans, the world is vastly more unpredictable than models allow for, and will remain so, no matter our scientific and analytical sophistication. His solution is to identify, understand, and build systems that can handle unpredictability, errors, and disorder. These antifragile systems gain from stressors and prefer trial-and-error to directed knowledge.

Taleb traveled the conventional route of education to real-life and practice to theory in inverse from the common sequence, moving from the practical to the philosophical to the mathematical. He started as a trader, then got a doctorate in mid-trading career; he wrote literary books before writing technical papers, and his work became progressively more technical and formal with time.

Nassim Nicholas Najib Taleb was born to Minerva Ghosn and Dr. Najib Taleb, an oncologist. His entire family has roots in the Koura region: his grandfather, Fouad Nicolas Ghosn, and his great-grandfather, Nicolas Ghosn, were both deputy prime ministers in the 1940s through the 1970s. His paternal grandfather Nassim Taleb was a supreme court judge and his great-great-great-great grandfather, Sheikh Ibrahim Taleb (Nabbout), was one of the governors of Mutasarrifiyya, the semi-autonomous province of Mount Lebanon in 1866.

Taleb attended the Grand Lycée Franco-Libanais in Beirut. He holds bachelor’s (1980), master of science (1981), and PhD degrees from the University of Paris (1998). His dissertation focused on the mathematics of derivatives pricing and complications of stochastic process models when applied to the real world. He also holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (1983).

Taleb is currently a Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at the New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering, and an adviser to various governments, corporations, and trading firms as well as a managing principal of the Real World Risk Institute LLC. Before he moved to research he had a 21-year career in trading, holding senior positions with UBS, Credit Suisse (First Boston), Bankers Trust (now Deutsche Bank), BNP-Paribas, among others and was an independent floor trader in the pits of Chicago before starting his boutique. Taleb was one of the pioneers of complex derivatives and wrote his first book on the topic Dynamic Hedging: Managing Vanilla and Exotic Options (Wiley, 1997).

Taleb’s four volume philosophical essay on uncertainty, titled Incerto, has been translated into 38 languages. It includes the following books: Fooled by Randomness (2001) selected by Fortune as one of the smartest 75 books known; The Black Swan (2007; 2010); The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010); and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012).

Taleb is the author, as a backup to Incerto, of around 50 scholarly works ranging from quantitative finance and statistical physics to international affairs. His current projects are to refine the statistical techniques of extreme events (a project he started with his mentor the late Benoit Mandelbrot), to characterize how systems interact with disorder, and to complete a mathematical formulation of fragility.

Taleb has reportedly had a considerable impact on the practice of risk management in many domains: finance, security, military affairs, regulation, and political thought. He was said to be the UK Prime Minister David Cameron “favorite guru” and adviser, though he positions himself at a distance from UK politicians. Taleb is also working with the Nobel Foundation on the statistical properties of war.

The French Tribune has described him as having “the erudition of Pico de la Mirandola,” the Renaissance multidisciplinary scholar. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman declared Taleb among the world’s top intellectuals, saying “Taleb has changed the way many people think about uncertainty.”

Taleb was inducted into the Derivatives Hall of Fame in February in 2001; he was listed as one of the Wharton School’s 25 most successful graduates and has been one of the 100 most influential thought leaders in the world according to the GDI Institute for the years since 2013.

During a recent visit to AUB he described himself as an “anti-intellectual who writes books and an anti-academic person who is a professor.” He has been known to refuse honors and honorary degrees, dismissing them as spectator sports. When approached by AUB, however, he said it was the greatest honor that any Lebanese could receive, and one that he could not pass on.

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