Laughing out loud. Commonly expressed as an acronym in the modern digital world, the three letters LOL do not give the feeling any justice, they try but they do not encapsulate the uncontrollable bursts of giggles, rolling guffaws, quiet snickers, and hooting laughter. There is something beautiful in hearing a crowd of people lose control over their vocal cords, expressing noise in appreciation of humour, doubling over with the tight contractions of the abdominal muscles as they make them shake, and tears run down their faces. Described this way it almost sounds horrific, but there is something amazing in losing yourself in laughter, a full body release that transforms you and your reality.
I attended a comedy show last night, and I’m sorry to say that most of my laughs were quiet, a non-comittal noise emitted to acknowledge that there was a joke being made. I was sitting in the front, and was worried that if I did not laugh or smile with the crowd that this well meaning Scottish comedian would likely roast me, and I had to find a way to blend in and become unseen. This was in part fear of having the spotlight on me, but mostly for the possibility that I would retort with something dry and harsh, potentially ruining the atmosphere for my friends – it was my friends partners birthday and everyone else was enjoying themselves. So I put on my game face, quickly searching for a funny experience in my memory that I could pull the emotion from and project into this moment.
And so we come to The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
It appears I have what is called a sophisticated mordant sense of humour. I took a couple of online tests, briefly dipped my toe into the waters of a Google search on types of humour, and this is the result. I am a little surprised, I was thinking dry originally, but that appears to be more so my favoured delivery method. There are many aspects to humour, and to describe all the ways might be a blog unto itself, but suffice to say my initial readings on the topic helped to clarify to myself what I find humorous. So why The Black Swan, why would I find a book on the highly improbable funny? It wasn’t just an acknowledgement nod, it wasn’t a quiet chuckle, I found myself doubled over laughing whilst reading this, and I still use this book years after reading to bring a smile to my face.
Taleb is a statistician, a day-trader, a philosopher, and the funniest person I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. His dry and often caustic remarks on the delusion of the human race fits nicely with my own mordant humour, and it was funnier as it had the ring of truth to it. Cutting, incisive, and painful truth. I laughed at his dead-pan delivery as he flayed alive economists, statisticians, day traders, and everyone who had ever had the gullibility, the delusion of thinking that they could foresee the future from looking at the past.
Consider a turkey. Taleb discusses their life, their experiences, the knowledge of its past. It is well fed, it is comfortable, it has a place to stay outside of the rain, and as the seasons tick past the history of this process builds up. Looking at this process, can one tell what is going to come next? It is obvious that it will continue to be fed by generous humans, there is nothing in this data to suggest otherwise. So it is quite a surprise to this turkey that the day before Thanksgiving, in the prime of its life, it is killed. This is not such an odd scenario to the humans who fed the turkey, and many statisticians and economists will likely quote theories of incomplete information, and explain how additional information would have predicted this. But if you were the turkey, how were you to know? How do you find out what you do not know? Other than the history of the process, what other information feeds into the events that happen in our world?
There are numerous people who buy into the stock market with magical formulas – to them, there must be a simple yet ingenious way by which you can forecast the growth of a stock and as such get rich, but I ask how could one person possibly know everything that feeds in to the value of a stock? What do company records, previous growth, media releases, and company structure, among numerous other “key indicators” have to do with the value of its stock in the market? According to my early studies in Economics, these were, exactly as described, key indicators. Case and point, The Lehman Brothers. There was no information provided to market that could have possibly suggested that they would collapse, they themselves believed (apparently) that there was no risk in their behaviour and yet they fell. Spectacularly. The shockwave was felt by the world. The turkey was killed, and people are still scrambling to find something in the data to explain this, to protect themselves, to find the shooter behind the grassy knoll and provide more robust forecasts.
The war in Lebanon and the crash of 1987 seemed identical phenomena. It became obvious to me that nearly everyone had a mental blindspot in acknowledging the role of such events: it was if they were not able to see these mammoths, or that they rapidly forgot about them. The answer was looking straight at me: it was psychological, perhaps even biological, blindness; the problem lay not in the nature of events, but in the way we perceived them. (Page 21, The Black Swan)
Mistaking a naive observation of the past as something definitive or representative of the future is the one and only cause of our inability to understand the Black Swan. (Page 42, The Black Swan)
To the turkey, how do you know what you don’t know? Do you hurriedly scramble to gather more research, more data, more of everything – because it has always been obvious to us that more is better. Do you try numerous analysis, design brand new ones, both complex and simple, do you just think harder? Would any of this have helped the turkey? Or the Lehman Brothers? The 1930s depression? The stagflation of the 1970s, which broke crucial economic theories that supported industrialised economies?
Taleb strips this delusion from you. This belief that you can foresee the future. That you have control. He offers – not a magical time telescope – but 10 principles to create a robust society, one that can minimise its risk of extreme events, and continue to grow and thrive.
Read this book and accept your weaknesses. Embrace your humanity. And laugh out loud as the facade of control comes crashing down around you.
Keep wondering readers.
Taleb, N. (2010). The Black Swan. 2nd ed. Penguin Books.