Lessons from “The black swan”, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

black-swan-taleb-9780141034591-voorkantThe black swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from 2007 was still on my reading list. Finally, a vacation to Egypt seemed the perfect time to read it. I will share here what I took out of The black swan, when I was rethinking its content looking over a translucent blue sea in the Middle East.

Black swans, or rare events that are beyond expectations with an extreme impact. Hardly anyone sees them coming, but in hindsight after all still very explainable and predictable. Such black swans have shaped the world, but why are we so blind to the randomness by which they occur? What we don’t know seems to be far more relevant than what we know. And yet, there are many like myself who are professionally involved in foresights, future studies or any other expertise who are trying to say ‘things about the future’.

Taleb’s main point is that the possibility of future events occurring does not mirror the normal distribution, or the bell curve that everybody knows from their statistics classes. While physical measurements such as body weight and length perfectly line out according to the bell curve, rare events seem much more extreme. They are not even the so called ‘outliers’ of the normal distribution. They are much more erratic, non-scalable, and can have a disproportional impact compared to everything else in the system. Their impact can be negative, such as 9/11 or the banking crisis. Positive black swans are things like extreme blockbuster bestsellers. Dan Browne’s Da Vinci code is a great example with unbeleavable huge sales compared to the rest of the book authors.

In our attempts to say something about the future, our mind exposes us to several traps. We like to summarize and simplify. We like to make stories and we are vulnerable to over-interpretation. We lay our stories over potential future events, and therefore are blind to the things outside our stories. To make matters worse, we have a tendency to look for things that confirm our stories and ignore those that do not fit into our stories. This adds to our surprise when faced with a black swan. We are fooled by reductions, categorising events into what we already know, even though reality is much more complex. We tend to make the wrong conclusions, if we have clear cut definitions of what is supposed to be the ‘normal’ case.

So what can we do about it? How can we generate a better way of considering future events? Randomness is everywhere. Obviously, it helps to be prepared of all sorts of things that may happen. Be open minded about eventualities. On the positive side of black swans, surprise outcomes can pay off, if you look for opportunities. Don’t be too narrow focused on the precise and local. Let plans unfold naturally, instead of planning ahead for many years.

What lessons can we learn from The black swan? In future studies an open mind is mandatory. Skip all taboos and the ‘things that could never happen, so we don’t need to think about them’. Try to consider possibilities and things that might grow huge. Which tipping points might be just around the corner? Stay sceptical about things that we take for certain. Reconsider assumptions that we take for granted. In these ways we will become more open to seeing randomness unfold and helps us in making decisions for a successful future.

About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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