Patton's Picks from the PMA Library: The Black Swan

November 2020

"The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb

If you're looking for book recommendations in the productivity and professional development genre, Patton offers a weekly summary of some of the essential and emerging titles from the PMA Library.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains a vision of history in which "black swan" events (unforeseeable, world-altering happenings) have always been at the root of the world's major changes. He also explains why we are so bad at predicting the future, which leads to the surprise of black swan events and the resulting disruption to our lives.


1. Anticipate unpredictability in the future. He is a harsh critic of many fields of study that claim to predict the future such as financial advisors or those that include economic models, which are guilty of using past performance as an indicator of future context, and can't reliably hold up in the face of black swan events. Models look too narrowly at the future and thus are surprised by unusual occurrences. The life of a Thanksgiving Turkey is the best example: every day is good until the day before Thanksgiving!  We are also bad at predicting risk, and are guilty of ludic fallacy, which is the misuse of games as a means to model real life situations.

2. Anticipate human error of thought. Humans are often guilty of confirmation bias in which we only search for evidence to confirm our own theories. Similarly, we fall victim to narrative fallacy, an illusion in which our mind creates a comfortable sequence of memories that may not be accurate. We are simply too confident about what we know, and we should be more skeptical.  Be suspicious of the simple solutions that our minds crave!

3. Black Swans are not all bad. While the events of Black Swans are certainly life altering, if you are less narrowly focused on the shock and disruption, you can benefit from them too. Be aware of your inability to predict the future, and your inability to make sense of what has happened in the past. Know what you do not know and be comfortable with that reality. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, mathematical statistician, and former option trader and risk analyst, whose work concerns problems of randomness, probability, and uncertainty.