News and Tribune

May 31, 2013

STAWAR: Don’t shoot the black swans

Local columnist

Last week at the Springfield College commencement, Massachusetts Sen. Elisabeth Warren advised graduates that they should always be open to the unexpected, since that is where opportunity often resides. 

She also said they should never be so committed to their life plan that when they hit that inevitable bump in the road, that they lack “the resiliency to rethink and regroup.”

In the years since my college graduation, an incredible number of unexpected things have happened that no one saw coming. The personal computer, the Internet, video games, social media and smart phones are a few of the most obvious ones. Father John Culkin of Fordham University once said, “A lot of things have happened in the 20th century and most of them plug into the wall.” 

In the wireless 21st century, most of them now involve screens. 

When television first became popular, people said that watching too much would make your eyes go square, and even today people worry that too much “screen time” might harm your vision, as well as your health and social life. To counter this, some schools, families and even businesses are now requiring a certain amount of “screen-free time” each week. People apparently have a natural affinity to watching screens, which is probably related to our ancestors being fascinated by the sights seen safely from their cave windows. 

Virtual screens have been with us as far back as the 11th century, when Saint Clare of Assisi is said to have watched church services miraculously projected onto her bedroom wall when she was too ill to attend in person. In 1958, Pope Pius XII declared Clare the patron saint of television. 

As a young child, I would stare at a cardboard box with a circle drawn upon it and imagine that I could see spaceships. Eventually, video games easily caught up and surpassed my limited imagination, as did word processing. 

I have always been a terrible two-finger typist, and for years I wished for a way to be able to correct my mistakes without retyping the whole thing. Onionskin paper, erasable paper, liquid paper and even those built-in correction tapes all had their limitations. When I saw my first word processor in action on my Commodore computer, I knew I had arrived in the promised land. If they could only make them with the sound and keyboard action of the IBM Selectric typewriter, they would be perfect. 

Besides all this advanced technology, I also never imagined I’d have to take off my shoes to board an airplane, and who would have guessed that the price of gasoline would increase more than tenfold. My father would never have believed that people would be willing to pay more than a dollar for a plastic bottle of tap water or fork over four bucks for a fancy cup of coffee. 

Today, I drive out of my way for those things. 

General Electric’s Carousel of Progress at Disney World did accurately predict that we would be keeping our recipes on a computer database and that we would be watching large flat-screen TVs. But it also forecasted that all of us would be sitting in rattan swing chairs and it completely missed out on smart phones and Crocs. 

Many of these changes that we didn’t see coming have a significant affect on our lives and society. In his 2001 book “Fooled By Randomness,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American scholar now affiliated with New York University, introduced his theory of Black Swans. 

Taleb gained worldwide fame as one of the few people to predict the financial collapse of 2008. While studying the financial impact of unexpected events, he popularized the term “black swan,” which refers to totally unexpected events that end up having a major societal effect. 

People tend to rationalized these occurrences afterward in order to mitigate feelings of helplessness and anxiety. “Black swans” may be tragedies, opportunities or possibly both, for different people. They account for most scientific discoveries, historical events and cultural accomplishments, according to Taleb. 

World War I, the stock market crash, the Internet, the personal computer, the disbanding of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks are examples of black swans on a large scale. On a personal level, they are represented by things like accidents, illnesses, unforeseen opportunities such as job offers and other unexpected things we usually consider as bad or good luck, such as getting laid off from work or winning the lottery. 

San Francisco management consultant, John Hagel says, “ ... especially extreme unanticipated events can harm us or even destroy us. But they can also help us to grow and make us stronger.” 

Unfortunately, most man-made systems are quite fragile and need stability to function optimally. Extreme random events seem to throw these systems out of whack, whether it’s the stock market during an international crisis or your car during an unusually frigid spell. 

Taleb says that trying to predict black swans is basically a “fool’s errand” and such efforts only result in false assurance. Such events are by definition unpredictable and in many cases inconceivable. The globalization of digital technology has greatly increased the scope, pace and magnitude of social interactions, which also increases the frequency of black swan events. 

In his latest work “Antifragility,” Taleb gives his personal prescriptions for not only structuring international economic systems, but also for making your everyday life less vulnerable to negative black swans and more able to take advantages of the positive ones.

Here are a few of the general rules for thriving in the face of randomness: 

1. Besides limiting carbohydrates, Taleb first advises us to keep things as simple as possible. Very complex machines, for example, are more prone to suffer random breakdowns since there is more to go wrong in times of instability. 2. Decentralize and layer functions. An example might be a city in which all the power grids meet in one substation. Such an organization is especially vulnerable for blackouts, because if that one substation goes, everything goes with it. Multiple small substations, rather than a single massive one would promote antifragility. 3. Balance security and risk taking by playing it safe in some areas and taking risks in others, but don’t just stay in the middle. Taleb calls this a “barbell approach.” 4. Overcompensate and bet on redundancies. Nature promotes antifragility in humans by giving us two eyes, lungs, and kidneys, for example. Over preparing and making sure that you have more than enough resources is at the heart of this suggestion and 5. Finally as Sen. Warren suggests, embrace the unexpected. 

Serendipity, growth, and evolution all depend on randomness, without it we languish. 


— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at