Taleb's Black Swan

Tom’s audioblog last week talked about the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan. I loved hearing Tom’s comments because I was, at the time, on vacation immersed in The Black Swan. But I have only just finished Part 1, 133 pages. This book is not to be read smoothly from start to finish. As it is a book about the importance of what you don’t know, and how we all tend to fool ourselves about what we do know, it requires time to read, absorb, think, and challenge some of your most fundamental ways of learning and seeing the world. (And, I say, ignore Gregg Easterbrook’s NY Times review on April 22. Easterbrook picks on Taleb for certain comments and ignores the mind-shocking new perspectives Taleb offers us.)

We had some good discussion on this site about Taleb’s Black Swans back in December around my post, “The Aflac Duck is a Black Swan,” as I was eagerly awaiting the book’s April publication. Black Swans are highly improbable events. Our problem is that we give undue importance to Black Swans that have already happened, assuming they (despite their unpredictability) will predict the future, and blind ourselves to those that might happen, because they don’t fit our generalized narratives about how the world works. One of the comments from a reader on my December post was that “the (Aflac) duck shows us that hard work can pay off in advertising.” A better assessment is that the unique success of the Aflac Duck, relative to the gazillions of clever ad campaigns that don’t work, is that the Aflac Duck is a fluke that will more likely be duplicated through luck than hard work. Taleb would call these many failed ad campaigns “silent evidence.”

Taleb first started putting his ideas together as a young person in Beirut as the Lebanese civil war began, making the assessment that “nobody knows what’s going on.” (Even his grandfather, the defense minister.) Taleb says we have gone from living in Mediocristan, where any one individual event doesn’t affect the entire picture very much, to living in Extremistan, where individual events, such as 9/11, can change the dynamics of our entire situation. But our minds are still wired for living in Mediocristan, so we retrospectively generalize after Black Swan events, and infer patterns and narratives that we have no real reason to believe in.

This is a very interesting topic, and I’m eager to hear your comments. (And if you don’t have a copy of this book, get one!)

Steve Yastrow posted this on May 6, 2007, in Innovation.
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