Dark feathers, bright ideas

January 10, 2008 § 1 Comment

Last night we had the first meeting of our new book club, and I thought it was a terrific success.  We had chosen The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb  for our first read and the general consensus of the group was that it was a particularly meaty choice for an inaugural meeting, but the conversation certainly didn’t suffer for it. Taleb is definitely an ornery individual and not afraid to debunk conventional wisdom. The book can be a little tough to get through, in part because Taleb deliberately jumps from one stylistic approach to another, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. The central theme is that truly random events are unforeseen, unplanned-for, and they can and do occur, sometimes with tremendous impact. When they have this last attribute of tremendous impact, be it positive or negative (think plane crash vs. finding out that the painting in your grandmother’s attic is a Picasso),  then the author dubs them “Black Swans”.   This book is in part a warning, but I don’t think the author’s purpose is to keep us looking over our shoulders or otherwise acting with paranoia.  I think the takeaways are think for yourself, be skeptical of experts, and be humble: you and the experts may owe a greater debt to luck than you may realize.  I don’t spend a lot of time trading stocks so I won’t opine on the author’s “barbell strategy” for investment, but as an entrepreneur I was intrigued by the concept of aligning yourself with opportunities that can benefit from positive black swans, but are more resilient to negative black swans.  I interpret this as be nimble in your thinking and flexible in your tactics, which aligns well with launching a business.  I also thought Taleb did a great job of reminding us that we need to not ignore the consequence of outlying events even if (especially if) the event is not a black swan and, in fact, does fit within our statistical model.  Hence the example that I loved: don’t try to wade across a river whose average depth is 4ft.  The deviations in depths are accounted for, but easily glossed over in theory, yet they can drown you in practice.

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