The Black Swan

Jul 22, 2013

The Black Swan cover

Rating: 35

I read The Black Swan after reading Fooled by Randomness. I enjoyed this book, though a little less than the previous book. Here the focus is on Black Swans, those rare events with extreme impact. Taleb describes their impact throughout history and how we should properly deal with them. It seems like the subject matter lends itself to practical advice, but Taleb spends more time examining the theory and trying to persuade the reader.

Notes:

  • A Black Swan is something with: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.

  • Since Black Swans are unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence rather than naïvely trying to predict them. Trying to predict Black Swans makes you more vulnerable to the ones you did not predict.

  • History and societies to not progress at a steady pace, rather they make discontinuous jumps (through Black Swans).

  • Forecasting in the future requires increasing amounts of precision.

  • Taleb is a big proponent of bottom-up approaches, with small incremental changes (to contrast with a “Platonic” approach involving starting with a general theory).

  • You can be more confident about disconfirmation than confirmation.

  • In theory, randomness is an intrinsic property. In practice, randomness is incomplete information (opacity).

  • Respect should be had for custom. Use it as a default, a basis for action, but not more than that (epilogism).

  • Rank beliefs not by their plausibility but by the harm they may cause.

  • Barbell strategy: it is better to be as hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive as you can instead of being mildly aggressive. That way you have a floor to your losses, and are exposed to positive Black Swan upside. Lose small to make big.

  • Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare. Most people do not realize they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. Collect as many free non-lottery tickets, with open-ended payoffs, as you can. Work hard to maximize your exposure to them. Taleb likes living in big cities for this reason.

  • Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.

  • Tournament effect: someone who is marginally “better” can easily win the entire pot, leaving the others with nothing.

  • Taleb hates the Gaussian-bell curve because it is frequently applied to situations heavily affected by extreme events (like total wealth, book sales, etc.), where it does not apply.

  • You cannot go from books to problems, but only from problems to books.

  • Worry less about embarrassment than about missing an opportunity.

  • Anti-debt: borrowing makes you more vulnerable to forecast errors.

  • The burden of proof is on someone disrupting an old system.

  • Nothing should ever become too big to fail.

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