If you want to write a book, don’t ask, “How much money does the average book make?” In this context, “average” is meaningless. You’re in the world of Black Swans.
The Black Swan is a book by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, and I have found the ideas in it critical to navigating my career as an author. Here – in my own words – is my summary of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. These are the ideas I think about when I’m considering writing a new book.
Where does the term “Black Swan” come from? Imagine a world where you’ve only ever seen white swans. If someone asked you whether or not black swans existed, you might say no.
You’ve seen thousands of swans, and they’ve all been white. Therefore, black swans don’t exist.
You’ve mistaken an absence of evidence for evidence of absence. Just because you haven’t seen evidence of black swans, does not prove they don’t exist.
What is a Black Swan? A positive Black Swan: In 2010, I wrote a blog post. That blog post prompted a publisher to reach out to me. I got a book deal.
A negative Black Swan: A Las Vegas casino had an insurance policy. They protected against every cheating scenario they could imagine. They had the most popular show in Vegas, where magicians worked with giant live tigers. So they protected against the scenario of a tiger jumping into the audience. But they never imagined the tiger would maim one of the performers – Roy of Siegfried and Roy. Siegfried and Roy lost their careers. The casino lost $100 million.
Both of these incidents are Black Swans:
Black Swans are outliers: They’re not what we expect. Nothing in the past predicts a Black Swan. Black Swans have extreme impact: The impact could be positive, such as my book deal, or negative, such as the tiger attack, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We backwards-rationalize Black Swans: After a Black Swan happens, it seems obvious. We look back and come up with explanations for how it happened. This gives us the illusion that Black Swans are explainable and predictable.
Note: COVID-19 is not a Black Swan. As Taleb has explained, global pandemics happen regularly. They’re uncommon, but they’re inevitable, and we know that.
The Black Swan Turkey Imagine you’re a Turkey. Every day, humans come and feed you. You think humans are pretty good and nice. Each day you get new information to confirm this belief.
A graph of your opinion of humans might look like this:
Notice the sharp drop-off at the end. That’s the day before Thanksgiving. Things seemed good, until they weren’t.
History does not always predict the future. Events come along that shatter all assumptions we’ve made based upon past information.
Mediocristan vs. Extremistan Black Swans happen in a place Taleb calls “Extremistan.” Extremistan is the opposite of “Mediocristan.”
There’s a joke I like, “Bill Gates walks into a bar. On average, everyone there is a millionaire.” We’re attracted to the “average” and the predictable. But oftentimes the concept of “average” is misleading.
Some things happen in Mediocristan and are predictable. The “average” is meaningful in Mediocristan. Other things happen in Extremistan and are unpredictable and extreme. The “average” is meaningless in Extremistan.
Mediocristan is about “the collective, the routine, the obvious, and the predicted.” Mediocristan is about risk spread out amongst many, to avoid surprises. An hourly-wage job at Starbucks is possible only in Mediocristan.
Extremistan is about “the singular, the accidental, the unseen and the unpredicted.” It’s where the Black Swans happen: random events you never expected, caused by forces you’ll never understand. Such as I experienced suddenly getting a book deal or working with a company that sold to Google.