Most of us embrace the illusion that the things we plan for will actually happen, and that the events that so-called “experts” predict will likely come to pass. We behave as if we live in a world that is stable, predictable, and follows some set of rules. This couldn't be any further from the truth.
I recently read a compelling book on the subject, called The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He describes black swans as earthshaking events that are not anticipated, and that have far-reaching effects. Black swans can be public, like 9/11, or private, like a surprise pregnancy or a cancer diagnosis. Black swans can be positive, like winning the lottery, or negative, like the financial crisis we are still recovering from.
Taleb explains that the events which have the most impact on our lives are not the day-to-day occurrences that we spend so much time thinking about and preparing for, but rather those catastrophic or wildly fortunate, completely unexpected events that we never see coming. This is not to say that we should ignore the little things that we can control, and wait passively for the wheels of fate to turn either in favor of us or against us. We need to be concerned both with the routine events of the day and the black swans.
So if unpredictability, chaos, and pure luck rule the day, then why even spend time shopping for groceries a week ahead or completely filling your gas tank? The answer is, because we just never know how long it will be until the next black swan, or what form it will take. It is difficult to prepare for specific black swans, but we can take into account their existence. Taleb's advice is to exert effort to minimize exposure to big, negative black swans, and increase exposure to big, positive black swans. Examples of minimizing exposure to negative black swans would be purchasing life insurance (for your spouse) and not buying a house in a flood zone. You can maximize your exposure to the positive black swans by looking for opportunities. Taleb says:
“Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like an 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. Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel everything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again. I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees….Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them…you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity…Diplomats understand that very well: casual chance discussions at cocktail parties usually lead to big breakthroughs- not dry correspondence or telephone conversations. 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.”Consider my own situation. I played by the rules. I got a good education. I worked hard in a variety of jobs. But what defines me more today than anything else is the fact that I have MS. This was a big negative black swan, that couldn't be avoided or predicted. I experienced another negative black swan when I found out that the iBOT, my advanced mobility device, was no longer being manufactured. On the other hand, my mother’s passing almost two years ago was not a black swan. Although it was tragic and had far reaching effects on me and others, it was not a complete surprise.
If the discovery of the connection between CCSVI and MS proves to be a key to understanding this damn disease, that discovery will, in retrospect, have been a positive black swan. I’ve exposed myself to that potential by undergoing CCSVI treatment, while not even knowing for certain if it will work.
I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding negative black swans, yet I can’t elude them all. My point isn’t that we should forsake college educations or refuse to draft five-year plans. I’m not advocating that we avoid buying the groceries a week ahead. But I wish that we would admit to ourselves that as a species, the most sophisticated and intelligent species on earth, we still have very little control and very little understanding of the complex ways of the world. It is simply beyond our grasp.
For me, this discussion about black swans is not at all troubling. It represents an enrichment of our understanding of the world, even if that new understanding is that we don’t understand, or control, nearly as much as we thought we did. I find this concept, and the truth it reveals, to be strangely liberating.
The bottom line- spend enough time on the mundane tasks to stay above water, carrying on as if the future is predictable. Spend the rest of your time avoiding negative black swans and exposing yourself to positive black swans. And most of all, try not to be shocked if the completely unexpected happens. In fact, be shocked if it doesn’t.