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April 24, 2019

Taking Flight with Black Swans

99 cent showby: Jaffer Ali

I am on the edge of mysteries and the veil is getting thinner and thinner.
--Louis Pasteur

I owe the title and concept of today's article to the brilliant trader-philosopher-epistemologist, Nicholas Taleb. A "Black Swan" is Taleb's metaphor for an unpredictable, rare, large-impact event.

Taleb's notion of the Black Swan arises from ignorance--specifically the widely held albeit it erroneous assumption in Europe through the 18th century that all swans were white. This belief persisted as truth until Europeans traveled to the remote and isolated new continent of Australia, where, lo and behold, they encountered something completely unexpected in the form of beautiful black swans.

Black Swans are usually associated with cataclysmic, negative events like 9-11 and stock market crashes. But Taleb speaks at length about positive Black Swans in science and technology. The discovery of penicillin was a miraculous Black Swan; the personal computer a magnificent Black Swan.

Serendipity plays a significant role in these positive Black Swans, but more than sheer luck is involved in recognizing and/or welcoming these events into our lives. In order to reap the benefits of such unpredictable events, we must first be open to the possibilities and uncertainties that spawn them. But what exactly does that mean?

Since we cannot choose which events will emerge as Black Swans nor predict when they will occur, we need to be on the lookout for these displays of curious plumage. This is easier said than done. We have to train ourselves to "lift the veil" as noted 19th century French chemist and biologist Louis Pasteur suggested, because "chance favors the prepared mind."

Accordingly, preparing ourselves for Black Swans is not quite as easy as Monsieur Pasteur makes it sound.

With so much information overwhelming our senses, it's only natural to develop ways to sift through it. But if we filter out too much information, we inhibit possibilities before they can reveal themselves. And if we don't filter extraneous data, we become paralyzed with overloaded circuits. Indeed, taking flight with Black Swans is a balancing act that requires patience, diligence, and practice.

The first task at hand is to acknowledge the phenomenon of the Black Swan. Many of us choose not to acknowledge the role that chance plays in our lives. But it is an abiding belief in life's uncertainties that prepare us for unexpected events and the possibilities they portend.

This also means we must conquer the fear that surfaces whenever we venture close to the edge of the abyss. The poet and dear friend of Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, once composed these appropriate words...

Come to the edge he said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge he said.
They came.
He pushed them, and they flew...

In the past, I have written about embracing uncertainty and wonder. It is only after we tear down the fences of fear that inhibit us that we can welcome the mysterious and elusive Black Swans into our lives. Ask yourself WHY people like Pasteur, Taleb, Einstein, Gates and Bezos were able to seize and embrace Black Swan opportunities when they presented themselves, and you realize that they all turned a blind eye to fear in favor of what they discovered with both eyes wide open.

Our evolutionary journey is fraught with fear and uncertainty. Open your eyes and you too will discover that not all swans are white.

Original Article: Taking Flight with Black Swans

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