Are you hunting black swans? (Or: are you exposed to any positive, improbable, highly impactful events?)

16 September 2015

reading time:  minutes

I’ve spoken before about my admiration for the work of Nassim Taleb. He’s the author of Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragility.

For me, one of the most enduring lessons from his work relates to “black swan” events. This is a term that Taleb coined to describe highly improbable, highly impactful events.

In our personal lives, we’re exposed to any number of negative black swan events. You never know if you’re going to be a victim of an isolated act of violence or terrorism. You don’t know if you’re going to be hit by a car. In the context of a person’s life, these events are highly improbable. But the risk is there, and they have the potential to be highly impactful. 

We can take steps to limit our exposure to such events. Not antagonising other people; living in “safer” neighbourhoods; not getting drunk in dangerous environments; not hanging around drug dealers; taking extra care while crossing the road; taking advanced driving courses; the list goes on. You can never eliminate the risk, but you can try to lower the probability of such an event.

On the flip side, it’s worth considering how many positive black swan events you’re exposed to.

Is there any conceivable scenario in your life where you wake up tomorrow with an extra $1 million? Where you found yourself in a position to reach out to a person you found interesting, such that they would happily take your call?

Is there any conceivable scenario where you could achieve these outcomes, or outcomes that you might find similarly desirable, over the course of a year? Ten years? 

If not, is there anything you could do that might create this possibility? 

I’m not saying that you should orient your life around hunting these positive black swans. They are, by definition, highly improbable, so you shouldn’t expect them to happen. But I think there’s value to opening the door to them. 

So. Very occasionally my wife and I enter lotteries. We understand that as a financial strategy it’s terrible, but it’s entertaining to talk about about what we’d do if we won.  (And on that point, for an interesting perspective about why playing the lottery can be a good investment, check out this article.) It’s part of the reason I write this blog and work on similar projects of its type, and have developed complementing capabilities like presentation skills. (Taleb himself says that “Somehow there was the pre- and postFooled [by Randomness] life”.) When I get invited to events or parties that I don’t really want to go to, I often make myself go, because you never know who you could meet or what you might learn.

I’m under no illusion that nothing is likely to come of any of these things. In large part they add to the quality of my life regardless. But that extra benefit – of keeping the door open for hugely positive, impactful events – adds another dimension to life, and helps to manage the upside of uncertainty.


black swans, hunting black swans, luck

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or a popular author of erotic, supernatural, mystery novellas. Sometimes he says he was in a band that opened for Robbie Williams. None of these are true.

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