Unforeseen possibilities

Roger von Oech recommended The Black Swan to me a couple months back. He's since done a blog post on it when he finished reading the book last month. I finished the book yesterday. This the first of several I'll write on this provocative exploration of improbable occurrences by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

At any point in time there are unforeseen possibilities that have not previously occurred in our history. We can assume they won't happen-- like the well-fed livestock that is fat, dumb and happy about how well their dining experience continues to be. We can otherwise be open to the possibility without being able to foresee it, predict it or explain it. Since we cannot dwell on what the possibility is to foresee, we can only focus on how we are seeing.

We fail to foresee extreme possibilities when we are pursuing a sure thing. We play the game by the book, according to the formula and true to the technique. We allow for small variations that deviate from the accepted norm. We think we are minimizing our risk exposure with our top-down consistency and conformity to a plan. We feel betrayed and alarmed when when we encounter wild swings in the numbers, extremely random variations in events or clear signs of luck defying the calculated odds.

We are more likely to foresee extreme possibilities when we abandon a sure thing. What we are then doing could amount to nothing or something we did not expect. We play by the seat of our pants while learning from the evidence of what happens and minimizing our theorizing. We scout for hidden randomness and risk exposure. We notice where it's possible for network effects, exponential changes and tipping points to kick in. We piece together a way to build slowly, bottom-up from the evidence we accumulate.

Seeing unforeseen possibilities often comes down to our explanations. If we are convergently explaining the same old story, we will rule out the unforeseen. If we are divergently exploring many different stories, we are open to the unpredictable. If our explanations establish precise causality, we will become over confident about how and why things happen. If our explanations explore recursion and indeterminate system effects, we will humbly cope with the limitations of our thinking, methods and data.

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  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the "Black Swan." I especially like your last paragraph.

    One of my biggest take-aways from TBS was that our narratives are fine for helping us to make sense of out the world, but that they can easily imprison our thinking if we don't try to get outside of them. That's easier said than done.

  2. Thanks Roger. I sure identified with your experience of taking the book in small gulps. Taleb sure goes outside the box of conventional stories. I had always considered Finance and Economics sacrosanct while I was an apostate for conventional B school courses in leadership, strategy and management. Now I know nothing is sacred :-)

    "getting outside our stories" Hmmm That gives me an idea for another post someday soon!