Book Summary of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Life gets busy. Has The Black Swan been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
Have you ever made a comprehensive plan, but it failed anyway? Do you find yourself in extreme positive or negative situations and fail to make the best choice?
Well, you are not alone. Better still, you are in good company. Even plans made with endless resources can fail. Governments cannot address problems such as unemployment and war. They also cannot seize opportunities by misallocating public resources.
Better planning will enable you to capitalize on opportunities. Preparedness will allow you to cut losses when disasters strike. How do you prepare for unexpected life events? Can you improve the success rate of your plans?
The Black Swan is based on the premise that life is full of surprises. Some are good, and some are catastrophic. The book reviews events such as the rise of the Internet and devastating wars. It also studies our tendency to offer explanations when confronted with significant events.
The book offers insight into the nature of unexpected events. It also looks at typical human reactions. Finally, it provides tips on managing life’s extremes better.
About Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese American author. He is also a statistician, risk analyst, and former options trader. The Black Swan is one of the five-volume philosophical essays, Incerto. He published Incerto between 2001 and 2018. Taleb teaches risk engineering at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering and is a Risk and Decision Analysis journal co-editor. In addition, the remarkable statistician has authored over a dozen inspiring books.
Taleb’s approach to risk management saw him profit from contemporary financial crises. He advocates for a black swan approach to financial markets that caters to hard-to-predict events in decision-making. Taleb also advocates for decentralized scientific research and aims to overcome gaps in current studies.
Nassim Taleb authored four other books in Incerto. These books have won many accolades and have gained a global audience. Taleb’s unique style includes a mixed narrative; the reporting is semi-autobiographical and philosophical. It has led The Black Swan to win several awards.
StoryShot #1: Black Swan Events are Unprecedented and Have a Huge Impact. Later, They Are Explained Away as Predictable
History and society jump—incremental change does not happen as we expect. The scientific approach involves tracking events based on progression. Unfortunately, societies move from fracture to fracture, and explaining events using a cause-and-effect basis is flawed.
People mainly saw white swans for the majority of history. Some societies even believed that black swans did not exist. A group of explorers first saw a black swan in Western Australia in 1967. The stunning news spread across Europe and the world like wildfire. The tale of the black swan inspired many scholars. Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill used the term ‘black swan’ when referring to rare, improbable events.
Taleb proposes that black swan events have the following characteristics:
- They are not expected.
- They have a considerable impact on the world.
- People later give convincing explanations of what happened.
Notable black swan events include World War II and the market crash of 1987. 9/11 and the discovery of antibiotics are also black swan events.
The Lebanese Civil War was a black swan event. Christians and Muslims had lived peacefully for over 1300 years. The Lebanese culture preached tolerance. Schoolchildren respected their neighbors’ cultures.
A bloody religious war ended the unique civilization. Schoolchildren watched in shock as neighbors turned against each other. Bombs and bullets shattered residential areas. Lebanon expected the war to end in “a few days.” It lasted seventeen years. Later, scholars offered convincing explanations for the cause and nature of the war.
Black swan events extend to the expansion of small cults to global religions. Later generations are born thinking of particular beliefs as facts of life.
StoryShot #2: We Live in Extremistan, an Unequal World with Unpredictable Extreme Outliers
We live in two separate worlds: mediocristan and extremistan.
In mediocristan, things are equal and similar. Humans came from this world. It is the natural world that matches our intuition. We believe that aspects such as our height and salaries in conventional parameters are equal.
The world is moving to extremistan. In extremistan, outliers have a disproportionate impact. It isn’t easy to wrap our heads around the new information. Consider a group of 50 people. One individual could have more wealth than the other 49 members combined. A single group member could also be much taller than the others.
In mediocristan, we rely on the tyranny of the collective. We focus on the obvious. We predict the future and prepare for it. In extremistan, the tyranny of the singular dominates society. Accidents and unseen events dictate our lives.
Technology and global connectivity are partly to blame for extremistan. The printing press, television, and the Internet have sped up the process to an extremistan world.
The world will suffer acute pandemics. Singular germs will dominate our lives, despite the scientific breakthroughs that we have made. Fewer people and companies will control more wealth. Inequality will increase, and fads will be more acute.
StoryShot #3: We Overvalue What We Know and are Blind to What We Don’t Know
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense, commented on the war in Iraq. He said that there are “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” The answer amused the press. Rumsfeld added that the things we are unaware of have an immense impact on our lives.
The concept of “unknown unknown” is now an extensive field to study. Most media stations ridiculed it. The quote expresses the risks we face when deciding. We have limited understanding. A turkey raised on a farm celebrates the farmers’ generosity. Then Thanksgiving comes. The turkey feels safe because of the absence of evidence that the farmer is cruel.
The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Events such as the 9/11 attacks, the housing crash, and the Lebanon war harmed communities greatly. These events occurred despite the lack of precedents.
Silent evidence exists. We often cannot see it because of our obsession with naive observations in the past. Our bias extends to digging up one-sided evidence to support our beliefs. We focus on obvious evidence and cannot research issues that suggest otherwise.
Survivorship bias is our tendency to focus on successful examples and individuals. It is common to take lessons from role models. What about the invisible individuals? Some people may not achieve high levels of success. Individuals with hard work, discipline, and consistency may also fail. Most people do not publicize their failures, and prosperous individuals write best-selling biographies.
We should study all the individuals who ventured into a particular enterprise. We often underrate or completely discount silent evidence. However, we would benefit by overcoming our biases.
StoryShot #4: People Create Stories about Why Black Swans Happened, Which Covers Up How Unexpected They Were
We are quick to offer cause-and-effect explanations when extreme events occur. Our love for stories makes us simplify events at the expense of critical details. The narrative fallacy creates a perfectly logical world in our minds where fate is non-existent.
Our craving for logical stories pushes us to find causes for everything we see. Our explanations bind the facts together. The major product is an easy-to-remember story, satisfying “historical truths.”
Black swan events lie beyond the information we have. Yet still, we distort facts. Reducing information into a set of facts affects our reactions to rare events.
Often our approach to life falls under two major categories. In the first one, we are experiential; we decide within a split second based on intuition. We develop heuristics (shortcuts). They enable us to come up with fast solutions when confronted by a particular event. The quick fixes should be virtuous. But, these shortcuts are detrimental when we use flawed information.
Second, we apply efforts in understanding and responding to various scenarios; “thinking.” The process is often slow, progressive, and logical. Thinking makes fewer mistakes than heuristics. Better still, we can review our decision-making steps to correct specific errors.
The first system made us believe that black swans are non-existent. Thinking could have eliminated the problem. A systematic inquiry into the question would have eliminated biases. Heuristics are often based on emotions.
We must overcome the fallacy of creating stories by better understanding current events, and studying matters at a deeper level to learn fundamental drivers. We should also treat black swans as possibilities and prepare for worst-case scenarios accordingly.
StoryShot #5: We Worry Over What Has Happened in the Past and Ignore Everything Else That is Not Obvious
We often fall prey to using unrealistic models in explaining events. We cannot manage factors in our immediate environment. Worse still, we make our assumptions in sterilized environments such as classrooms. Even in scientific research, we sometimes accept results with little regard for the method.
We even assign probabilities to events. Also, we spare enough resources to manage them. We base the preparation on our assessments.
It is challenging to overlook our cognitive biases. Yet, we must overcome them to manage the mysteries of life better. We need to explore issues on a broader scale. We should accept the results of studies. We should avoid dismissing extreme variables (outliers) as errors. We are better off by understanding the causes and nature of outliers in extremistan.
StoryShot #6: We Are Growing Smarter, Yet, Our Overconfidence Grows at a Faster Rate
Humans make predictions all the time. Unfortunately, we cannot make accurate predictions. Our minds cannot understand daily events and manage trends.
Modern technologies such as the Internet, and blockchain, shape our lives. We also rely on medical breakthroughs and science when predicting the future. We forget how unexpected these advances were and feel overconfident in predictions. But, we base the estimates on the same bias. We cling to our stories and make predictions based on the available facts. Our estimations can only be correct if our information is not too reduced.
We now have advanced data analysis. We can even use simulations to predict the future with higher accuracy. It is true; we are more intelligent. We have developed more specialized tools for risk analysis than our predecessors. Are we better off in making predictions, or are we overconfident in our abilities?
In conclusion, we are better off when we understand events by studying them with an open mind. We should replace forecasting with self-awareness. Our success in life is not based on our ability to predict the future. It relies on our preparedness to react to and manage daily occurrences.
StoryShot #7: Knowing How to Handle Issues is More Important than the Ability to Anticipate Them
Great things are often unexpected. America may be one of the greatest nations in the current world. Yet, it was an accidental discovery. Explorers were looking for a route to India.
The US has since progressed from being a random overseas territory. It is now home to giant companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft. The key insight here is that prosperity and success can occur even without an outstanding forecasting ability.
Given that there is no escaping from extreme events, the genius lies in handling them. We should understand how to best prepare for unexpected fortunes and crises, rather than try to predict them.
StoryShot #8: What to Do When You Cannot Predict Changes
Our cognitive arrogance is our own major enemy. We need to make and execute plans well. Smaller events such as going to the picnic are more beneficial. We should not worry about large-scale harmful predictions.
Often, we cannot predict extreme events. They lack a cause-and-effect relationship. We do not need large databases to enjoy positive black swans and cut losses with negative ones.
Placing oneself in the right situations will enable you to manage mysteries in life. Stay where there are more potential returns than losses. For example, when investing your money, you are better off allocating up to 90% to safe enterprises. Allocating 10% to speculative enterprises is prudent in two key ways. First, you enjoy positive black swan events. Second, you still have 90% of your investment secured in case of a negative black swan.
StoryShot #9: We are Better Off When We Delay Gratification. Being A Black Swan Hunter Can be a Risky Endeavor
Our perception of risk is often aimed at giving us sustainable rewards. For instance, in business, we prefer an investment with a steady return and hope for no adverse events. We deem such enterprises as “successful.”
Hunting the black swan is “risky.” The hunter focuses on large payoffs from the back swan – either positive or negative. Meanwhile, the hunter continues to bleed. We make losses by not changing our position in times of downturn, where we should focus on making an average market reward. Observers refer to such individuals and enterprises as “unsuccessful.”
Hunting the black swan demands personal stamina as much as intellectual prowess. A lot of waiting is necessary, and the waiting duration is unknown. For instance, with scalable professions, we can get a huge payoff. We can also make devastating losses at any point by taking a “risky” position.
A black swan hunter is open-minded and always ready. They expect extreme positive and adverse events. For them, extreme events are the culmination of their delayed gratification.
Final Summary and Review of The Black Swan
A black swan is an improbable event with three key characteristics. It is unexpected, it has a massive impact, and we offer convincing explanations on how it occurred. Notable black swan events include the great success of Google, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the market crash of 1987. Black swan events dominate our lives. We face them both on a societal level, such as the rise of religions and in our personal lives, such as the death of loved ones.
How come we do not acknowledge black swan events until they occur? Part of the answer is that we are human beings. We focus on learning specifics instead of focusing on individual events. Often, we maim ourselves by focusing on what we know. We have many biases that we often ignore. Thus, we underestimate opportunities and risks. We tend to simplify events, categorize them, and offer explanations. Sometimes, we rule out some events as impossible.
Our focus on inconsequential and irrelevant events is risky. We do not understand everything. Significant events keep surprising us and frustrating our efforts to meet specific goals. There are simple tricks to deal with black swan events.
To cut surprises in life, prepare for the worst-case scenario. Position yourself in an industry with high returns. Also, focus on understanding trends instead of predicting events. Take advantage of opportunities since positive black swans could transform your life. Skepticism is essential—avoid ideas that do not leave space for unknown variables. Place yourself in situations where payoffs exceed potential risks.
The Black Swan is startling, elegant, and universal in its application. The book contains irreverence, wit, and thrilling reviews of daily events. The book is one of many Nassim Taleb masterpieces. It aims at unwrapping – at least partly – some of life’s mysteries. What is better than a set of simple rules to enable you to cope with extremes in life?
We rate The Black Swan 4.3/5.
This article was first published in 2021. It was updated and revised substantially in August 2022.
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