Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is ostensibly a business book, yes, about how unforseen events change our lives in ways that are impossible to predict, let alone manage, but he chooses to conclude his cheeky analysis with a couple of passages I found surprisingly, well, moving.

'Black swans' are those cataclysmic societal and economic events that nobody could have predicted: 9/11, the rise of the Internet, Pauly Shore's career, etc. (Everybody thought all swans were white, until black swans were discovered in Australia -- an event nobody expected, but one that nevertheless happened.)

The entire book is a challenge to conventional thinking; it's sly, cheeky and even laugh-out-loud funny at points, but it can still get a little technical for a moron like me, who dropped out of Grade 10 Accounting and never looked back. (Only because a) I didn't need the credit and b) the teacher reminded me of Jon Lovitz. I love Jon Lovitz, but the resemblance was seriously uncanny. The fact that I didn't understand anything he was teaching? That didn't help either...)

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by this passage, which is right around the corner and across the street from my own out-of-the-way philosophical alley:

...My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, "I don't run for trains."

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to catch trains, I have the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you're seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.
Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved (this may seem crazy, but I've tried it and it works). This is the first step toward the stoic's throwing a four-letter word at fate. You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself.

Mother Nature has given us some defense mechanisms: as in Aesop's fable, one of these is our ability to consider that the grapes we cannot (or did not) reach are sour. But an aggressively stoic prior disdain and rejection of the grapes is even more rewarding. Be aggresive; be the one to resign, if you have the guts.

It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.

In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.

Since the whole book is about how so much of life is beyond our control, I love the fact that he reminds us, near the end, that we can, at the very least, control what is within our grasp; we can attain 'a true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior', if nothing else. We can choose to watch the herd go by and instead determine our own path, if we so choose, if the herd is headed somewhere we do not want to go in the first place.

And there's more:

...all these ideas, all this philosophy of induction, all these problems with knowledge, all these wild opportunities and scary possible losses, everything palls in front of the following metaphysical consideration.

I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.

Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don't be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth -- remember that you are a Black Swan...

An absolutely brilliant way to tie things up, I think. An entire book detailing how erratic and unpredictable life is, filled with Black Swans awaiting us at various undefinable points in the future, and yet, here we are -- each of us, together, Black Swans one and all, improbable beings that somehow managed, against all the odds, to be born, here, at this time.

Think of the size of space, and the width of the universe, and the mass of the earth, and what would not have happened had your particular parents not met on that particular day, or not made love on that specific night.

And yet somehow you emerged, more or less intact.

Somehow you endured, up until this very moment.

Black swans await us at every turn, certainly, but there are trains we do not have to run to catch, and destinies we can shift and tilt according to our will.