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1-Page PDF Summary of The Black Swan

Black Swans are extremely unpredictable events that have massive impacts on human society. These include positive Black Swans, like the invention of the Internet and the discovery of antibiotics, as well as negative Black Swans, like the 2008 recession.


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Black Swans compel people to explain why they happened—to show, after the fact, that they were indeed predictable. Taleb’s thesis, however, is that Black Swans, by their very nature, are always unpredictable. Furthermore, because of our cognitive biases, we’re more vulnerable than ever to misunderstanding Black Swans and their impact.

Learn what Black Swans are, why we’re susceptible to them, and how best to prepare yourself for the unpredictable.


Difficulties of Prediction

The central problem with experts is their uncritical belief in the possibility of prediction, despite the mountain of evidence that indicates prediction is a fool’s errand. Some key illustrations of the futility of prediction include:


Most groundbreaking discoveries occur by happenstance—luck—rather than careful and painstaking work. The quintessential example is the discovery of penicillin. Discoverer Alexander Fleming wasn’t researching antibiotics; rather, he was studying the properties of a particular bacterium. He left a stack of cultures lying out in his laboratory while he went on vacation, and when he returned he found that a bacteria-killing mold had formed on one of the cultures. Voilá—the world’s first antibiotic.

Dynamical Systems


A dynamical system is one in which an array of inputs affect each other. Whereas prediction in a system that contains, say, two inputs, is a simple affair—one need only account for the qualities and behavior of those two inputs—prediction in a system that contains, say, five hundred billion inputs is effectively impossible.

The most famous illustration of a dynamical system’s properties is the “butterfly effect.” This idea was proposed by an MIT meteorologist, who discovered that an infinitesimal change in input parameters can drastically change weather models. The “butterfly effect” describes the possibility that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can, a few weeks later and many miles distant, cause a tornado.

Predicting the Past

The past itself is as unknowable as the future. Because of how complex the world is and how a single event could be influenced by any number of tiny causes, we cannot reverse engineer causes for events.

An example should help illustrate. Think of an ice cube sitting on a table. Imagine the shape of the puddle that ice cube will make as it melts.

Now think of a puddle on the table and try to imagine how that puddle got there.

When historians propose causes for certain historical events, they’re looking at puddles and imagining ice cubes (or a spilled glass of water, or some other cause). The problem is that the sheer number of possible causes for a puddle—or a historical event—render any ascription of cause suspect.

If You Can’t Predict, How Do You Deal with Uncertainty?

Although Taleb is far more concerned with explaining why prediction is impossible than he is with proposing alternatives or solutions, he does offer some strategies for dealing with radical uncertainty.

1) Don’t Sweat the Small Predictions

When it comes to low-stakes, everyday predictions—about the weather, say, or the outcome of a baseball game—there’s no harm in indulging our natural penchant for prediction: If we’re wrong, the repercussions are minimal. It’s when we make large-scale predictions and incur real risk on their basis that we get into trouble.

2) Maximize Possibilities for Positive Black Swans

Although the most memorable Black Swans are typically the negatively disruptive ones, Black Swans can also be serendipitous. (Shortform note: Love at first sight is an example of a serendipitous Black Swan.)

Two strategies for opening ourselves up to positive Black Swans are (1) sociability and (2) proactiveness when presented with an opportunity. Sociability puts us in the company of others who may be in a position to help us—we never know where a casual conversation might lead. And proactiveness—for example, taking up a successful acquaintance on an invitation to have coffee—ensures we’ll never miss our lucky break.

3) Adopt the “Barbell Strategy”

When Taleb was a trader, he pursued an idiosyncratic investment strategy to inoculate himself against a financial Black Swan. He devoted 85%–90% of his portfolio to extremely safe instruments (Treasury bills, for example) and made extremely risky bets—in venture-capital portfolios, for example—with the remaining 10%–15%. (Another variation on the strategy is to have a highly speculative portfolio but to insure yourself against losses greater than 15%.) The high-risk portion of Taleb’s portfolio was highly diversified: He wanted to place as many small bets as possible to increase the odds of a Black Swan paying off in his favor.

The “barbell strategy” is designed to minimize the pain of a negative Black Swan while, potentially, reaping a positive Black Swan’s benefits. If the market collapses, a person pursuing this strategy isn’t hurt beneath the “floor” of the safe investments (say, 85%), but if the market explodes, he has a chance to capitalize by virtue of the speculative bets.

4) Distinguish Between Positive Contingencies and Negative Ones

Different areas of society have different exposure to Black Swans, both positive and negative. For example, scientific research and moviemaking are “positive Black Swan areas”—catastrophes are rare, and there is always the possibility of smashing success. The stock market or catastrophe insurance, meanwhile, are “negative Black Swan areas”—upsides are relatively modest compared to the possibility of financial ruin.

Suffice it to say, we should take more risks in a positive Black Swan area than in a negative Black Swan one.

5) Prepare, Don’t Predict

Because Black Swans are, by definition, unpredictable, we’re better off preparing for the widest range of contingencies than predicting specific events.

That’s because, though Black Swans themselves can never be predicted, their effects can be. For example, no one can predict when an earthquake will strike, but one can know what its effects will be and prepare adequately to handle them.

The same goes for an economic recession. No one can predict precisely when one will occur, but, using the “barbell strategy” or some other means of mitigating risk, we can at least be prepared for one.


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