Oprah Time: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It’s been nine years since Taleb wrote The Black Swan. Like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man before it, The Black Swan is widely cited and paid lip service to.

The timing of publication for Taleb was particularly pertinent as the book became popular as the financial system broke down in 2008. Some eight years later, the economy has limped along as financial issues were punted into the future, rather like a child kicking a can down an alley. Like the can, the financial issues are still here to be ran into. I thought it was time to re-read Taleb’s book.

Taleb’s work is philosophical rather than scientific in its method. Although he avoids the talk show friendly cliches of Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin. Much of our world is based around the normal distribution, it is used by insurance companies and pension funds to access risk and longevity. Taleb points out that the really big changes that rock the boat often don’t fit neatly within these models.

Taleb’s solution boils down to two things

  1. A defensive skepticism that would encourage the average person to question common wisdom and ask ‘what if’
  2. For those that can afford it, an offensive posture that asks ‘what if’ and has a mix of savings or investments most of which is put in very safe vehicles and 15 per cent or so on high risk speculative investments to take advantage of change

Taleb’s work doesn’t seem to have had the impact that one would have expected just five years ago when it was quoted as a touchstone to modern life.

Much of the excess and risk that had happened previously is happening again, despite a plethora of disruptive forces laid out in the media.

Audiences are paying too much attention to listicles that go something along the line of ‘5 habits you need have to be like Bill Gates’. Where is the critical filter?

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