What is The Black Swan?

WHAT IS THE BLACK SWAN AND HOW TO PROFIT FROM THE IMPLAUSIBLE 

‘All swans are white.’ For centuries, this statement was watertight. Every snowy specimen corroborated this. A swan in a different colour? Unthinkable. That was until the year 1697, when Willem de Vlamingh saw a black swan for the first time during an expedition to Australia. Since then, black swans have become symbols of the improbable. 

You invest money in the stock market. Year in, year out, the Dow Jones rises and falls a little. Gradually, you grow accustomed to this gentle up and down. Then, suddenly, a day like 19 October 1987 comes around and the stock market tumbles 22%. With no warning. This event is a Black Swan, as described by Nassim Taleb in his book with the same title.

A Black Swan is an unthinkable event that massively affects your life, your career, your company, your country. There are positive and negative Black Swans. The meteorite that flattens you, Sutter’s discovery of gold in California, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the invention of the transistor, the Internet browser, the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Mubarak or another encounter that upturns your life completely – all are Black Swans. 

Think what you like of former U.S. secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, but at a press conference in 2002, he expressed a philosophical thought with exceptional clarity when he offered this observation: there are things we know (‘known facts’), there are things we do not know (‘known unknowns’) and there are things that we do not know that we do not know (‘unknown unknowns’). 

How big is the universe? Does Iran have nuclear weapons? Does the Internet make us smarter or dumber? These are ‘known unknowns’. With enough effort, we can hope to answer these one day. Unlike the ‘unknown unknowns’. No one foresaw Facebook mania ten years ago. It is a Black Swan

Why are Black Swans important? Because, as absurd as it may sound, they are cropping up more and more frequently and they tend to become more consequential. Though we can continue to plan for the future, Black Swans often destroy our best-laid plans. Feedback loops and non-linear influences interact and cause unexpected results. The reason: our brains are designed to help us hunt and gather. Back in the Stone Age, we hardly ever encountered anything truly extraordinary. The deer we chased was sometimes a bit faster or slower, sometimes a little bit fatter or thinner. Everything revolved around a stable mean.

Today is different. With one breakthrough, you can increase your income by a factor of 10,000. Just ask Larry Page, Usain Bolt, George Soros, J.K. Rowling or Bono. Such fortunes did not exist previously; peaks of this size were unknown. Only in the most recent of human history has this been possible – hence our problem with extreme scenarios. Since probabilities cannot fall below zero, and our thought processes are prone to error, you should assume that everything has an above-zero probability.

So, what can be done? Put yourself in situations where you can catch a ride on a positive Black Swan (as unlikely as that is). Become an artist, inventor or entrepreneur with a scaleable product. If you sell your time (e.g. as an employee, dentist or journalist), you are waiting in vain for such a break. But even if you feel compelled to continue as such, avoid surroundings where negative Black Swans thrive. This means: stay out of debt, invest your savings as conservatively as possible and get used to a modest standard of living – no matter whether your big breakthrough comes or not.

Next:
Domain Dependence – KNOWLEDGE IS NON-TRANSFERABLE

Similar Biases:
Ambiguity Aversion – THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RISK AND UNCERTAINTY
Forecast Illusion – FALSE PROPHETS
Alternative Paths – CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’VE WON RUSSIAN ROULETTE
Expectations – HANDLE WITH CARE

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Not-Invented-Here Syndrome – WHY YOU CAN’T BEAT HOME-MADE

The above article is from the book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand cognitive biases. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!