Black Swans

Author of best-selling Fooled By Randomness and Black Swans Nassim Nicholas Taleb was being a curmudgeon again recently in The Sunday Times. A little of him goes a long, long way. AND his skepticism about how financial markets and complex systems are commonly managed seems properly placed, skepticism being as necessary to clear perception and good eyesight.

He claims that the US focuses upon managing to models of the world, while the Europeans attend more to adapting to the way the world shifts. And Talib claims that the world shifts unpredictably, under the influence of eventual but unpredictable Black Swan Events-once in a very long while occurances. These, he claims, wipe out the optimistic, who discount their risk because of their low probability of occurring. Wisdom, Talib claims (with considerable credibility), insists that one hedge these unlikely gut shots or risk catastrophy. This is a different mindset than our probability professors insisted we learn, and one quite alien to anyone producing plans, schedules, and "managing risks" in organizations today.

I can't verify his perspective, but I can confirm that the model madness here seems rampant. We do not deal with the world as it is, it seems, but are taught---rewarded even---for dealing with the world as it is supposed to be according to our models of it.

Read Fooled By Randomness if you have a strong stomach for blunt criticism. Read the whole Sunday Times piece if you'd like a gullet-full of his perspective. Watch his recitation of the following "life tips," if you want just a taste of his style. Or just read those tips below.

Taleb's top life tips:

1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.

2 Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.

3 It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.

4 Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.

5 Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.

6 Learn to fail with pride — and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part.

7 Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take ‘no’ for an answer (conversely, take most ‘yeses’ as ‘most probably’).

8 Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants... or (again) parties.

9 Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.

10 Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.

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