‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’


The Black Swan is the third book I've read this year, and it will probably be the meatiest tome I take on for 2009.

I picked it up after two friends recommended it, people who live two very different lives. So, I expected a business-type book with universal appeal, complete with numbered reminders and concise and memorable theories. The Black Swan offers none of the above.

What Nassim Nicholas Taleb does put forth, however, is a deeply profound thesis: Black Swan events dominate our lives, and those who make it big understand this and leverage themselves accordingly. The theory is based on the idea that up until a certain point, humans had only ever seen white swans. But the moment that black swans were discovered, humans’ entire worldview was sent spinning. (For a more concise review and the financial implications of Black Swans, read this Forbes article.)

It took me a while to get through Taleb's work, mainly because it's full of history and theory and chronicles philosophers and scientists who have thought every which way about Black Swans. But, if you can wade through all the details, you'll be able to find nuggets, and great ones at that.

Every so often, Black Swan events occur that leave all of us reeling. These events are unexpected, shocking and only seem predictable after the fact (9/11 and World War I are Taleb's classic examples). This happens in any industry time and time again.

Taleb then shows that two worlds exist: Mediocristan, where citizens take little risk and try to play it safe, working in unscalable professions in order to maintain a comfortable status quo; and Extremistan, where the foundations of society are often shaken, and those who are ready to capitalize on that change do. His advice is that we live in Extremistan when the greatest possible positive outcome is worth the risk, but that we also can't overestimate the greatest possible negative effects of what Mediocristan can bring.

This isn't an advice kind of book, or a book about making lots of money. It's an eye-opening examination of how we live life and operate in our respective worlds. Fortunately, Taleb does offer some practical wisdom for ways to live well in Extremistan. I'll offer one to you now:

“Seize opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. Remember that positive Black Swans have a necessary first step: you need to be exposed to them …. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them …. Go to parties. If you're a scientist, you will chance upon a remark that might spark new research. And if you are autistic, send your associates to these events.”

And, to conclude, I offer a first—a guest review from my friend Bier, who recommended the book to me:

“I love books that destroy assumptions and alter my daily thought patterns. A hardy ambassador for critical thought, The Black Swan does both well enough to be called philosophy, but it's also sufficiently technical to mail to a stats professor for his take. (I did.) Meanwhile, the proportion of my thoughts committed to potential magnitude has spiked, at the expense of probability analysis. A summary: You really don't know jack about why or how often—and neither do the "experts"—so think more about what if and how much. When you do, you save yourself from the very worst and widen the crack for the very best. The rest is all manageable.”

Sam Davidson is executive director of CoolPeopleCare, Inc. A version of this column appeared originally on his blog.

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Tags: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Sam Davidson, The Black Swan