I grabbed this from the library and will add a copy to my personal library soon.
Many of the books I read are filled with ideas from way outside my worldview and comfort zone. It is difficult to read a book based on ideas you oppose with an open mind, but worth the effort IF it’s well written and well reasoned. There’s a lot to gain from reading what you don’t understand.
That said, sometimes it’s nice to read through something that clicks with your brain and has you saying, “YES. YES. Wow.” through most or all of it. It’s full of insights that were new (to me) but the whole thing is based on principles I can get behind. I read The Black Swan with joy in my heart. I’ll explain what I liked so much about it and then go over some of my favorite concepts from the book.
I loved the way Nassim Taleb wrote The Black Swan. It’s well-organized and laid out. Concepts build from one part of the book to the next. Moreso than the organization of the work, Taleb’s writing seems to spurt easily from a deep geyser of erudition. That’s not to say his stuff is easy to read- quite the contrary.
Taleb efficiently packs ideas that are simultaneously complex and counterintuitive into concise packages. There was no speed reading through this one. I had to slow down, take notes and chew these ideas mindfully. Taleb packs more ideas into a couple of paragraphs than many authors would inflate into a chapter. For sheer density of writing Taleb reminds me more of Dostoevsky than Dubner.
I’m not going to go into detail explaining what a Black Swan is here- let’s just say if the Black Swan concept is a spine, Taleb builds a whole skeleton in this book. I’m going to pick out some of the intriguing bones and talk about them here.
The Black Swan phenomenon is so strange but so potentially devastating. Because the Black Swans are by definition unpredictable to the people they effect most, it makes sense that there are some bizarre and unexpected villains that leave people exposed. If the villains were obvious, folks wouldn’t be caught off guard.
So Taleb digs in and starts attacking these totally normal, commonly held beliefs. It’s like getting sucker punched over and over and over. He shows the reasons that so much of what we consider conventional wisdom may be sending us blithely down the road to our doom.
Plato- I’ve had few conversations about Plato. Don’t have a ton of use for him. Taleb rips into Plato as someone who must categorize everything, as someone who acts as if there’s a box everything can be placed into as part of some grand world-organizing scheme. The evil here is that people place things they don’t understand into neat little boxes, and when the label on the box doesn’t match the contents ugly surprises can pop up.
Plato’s ideals do not match reality- reality is largely unknown. Acting as if we know more than we do isn’t just arrogant, it’s perilous. Far better to label the unknown as such so we’re not caught flat-footed when strangeness happens.
The Narrative Fallacy- People love stories. We relate to our world through stories much more so than through raw experience. People love stories so much they’ll gladly create a story out of unrelated events and regard it as truth.
Taleb says this is a simplification technique that omits randomness- leaving us unprepared for Black Swan-type events.
The Bell Curve- Taleb vehemently hates the bell curve when it’s applied where it doesn’t belong (e.g. financial markets.) People reliably look at these standard distribution curves that are built by throwing out the outliers, when it is precisely those outliers that cause the greatest harm. Every time I see or hear discussion about a bell curve-type distribution I now think: What are they talking about, and did they throw out the most important information in their set to get that pretty bell curve? Granted there’s not a lot of bell-curve talk around my dinner table, but this concept has been a real paradigm shift for me.
In conclusion: I haven’t touched on a tenth of the concepts Taleb picks apart in The Black Swan. This book was a real brain-stretcher for me and cemented Taleb as one of my favorite current thinkers. I recommend his work to those who are unafraid of finding weaknesses they don’t know they have.