I've been reading the excellent Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently, and this inspired me to write an article about chaos.
Taleb's main focus in the book is on the description of black swans: highly improbable events with extreme consequences. The book begins with an anecdote about swans in Europe: Europeans, having seen nothing but white swans for centuries, imagined that swans could only be white. This belief was shattered when they set foot on Australia and discovered that black swans exist. Events such as this are groundbreaking, because they overturn hundreds of years of accepted evidence. Such events are always unpredictable and tend to have massive consequences, whether good or bad.
The practical implications of the black swan concept are numerous. The main point of the book is that people tend to be blind to the black swan event, making the event particularly troublesome whenever it occurs. With changes to the social intellect, black swan events could be more visible, more appreciated, more useful: rather than simply being destructive, they could in a certain sense be harnessed, if not fully anticipated.
Another important point is that the random nature of the black swan, paired with its massive impact, means that chance plays a much greater role in our lives than we’re willing to believe. A hedge fund can perform admirably for ten years, showing a ten percent return on investment year after year, only to fail miserably and go bankrupt in the 11th year. This sudden bankruptcy is not only unexpected, but also dwarfs the accomplishment of the past ten years combined. Since this single, massive, chance-based event is more important than ten years of “hard work”, it seems that we have a very mistaken view of what actually produces wealth: oftentimes not hard work, but simply the random vicissitudes of chance.
Here is what I take away from Taleb's book: we need to learn to accept chaos and uncertainty in our lives. The modern western psyche is about dominance, self-perfection, and control. While we can control the vast majority of our lives, providing them with the semblance of order, in reality the largest players must always remain outside of our grasp (natural disasters, stock market crashes, revolutions, alien attacks, zombie apocalypses, the second coming, the first coming, etc.). These black swan events embody the reality of chaos in our lives, and since we cannot overcome them, we must at least be capable of conceptualizing them.
The western mindset focuses on strength, on resistance. But there are always bigger fish in the sea. When that resistance doesn't suffice, we break. Aging and deterioration means that we can never be at the top of our game forever. But there’s always another option: we can learn to bend. Humility in the face of defeat, self-deprecation, the ability to see ourselves from the perspectives of others: these are all ways to increase flexibility, to increase our ability to cope in the face of disaster. Our egos can be strong, but when faced with an overwhelming force, they must break. We can therefore only survive by learning to adapt to the circumstance, to conform ourselves to the force and to redirect it. We can only thrive by learning to accept and understand the chaos in our lives.
We as a culture are allergic to things outside our direct realm of understanding. We are xenophobic, refusing to comprehend alien ideologies. We are obsessed with our cars and our watches and our clothes, ignoring the fact that all of these things will fade in time. Instead of looking to build skills and attributes which will serve us for life, we surround ourselves with fleeting emotional connections and material possessions. We set ourselves into specific mindsets and ways of thinking, and refuse to accept alternate hypotheses. We imagine ourselves to be that perfect bastion of order against chaos, but in the end we all die anyway.
In attempting to control our lives, paradoxically, we throw control away. The rigid attempt to put things into order only magnifies the impact of the black swan event when it arrives. Here is an example: when men were primitive, they had less control over the environment. They didn't have weather channels or levies or bunkers to hide in. But when an earthquake struck a primitive settlement, what was the damage? A few wooden houses knocked down, to be rebuilt within a few days or weeks work. What were to happen were that same earthquake to strike New York? There would be massive damage, many lives lost, and a huge drain on the national economy as the people of New York struggle to recover over the course of years.
It is the same in our own lives. Attempting to put our own households in perfect order only opens us up to massive trauma from social black swans. Adherence to a religion can be devastating when that religion falls out of favor and suddenly we’re the odd ones out. Addiction to a certain habit can be dangerous when that habit is no longer available to us. Caring too much about a certain person can mean massive trauma when that person dies or loses interest in us. This is not to advocate not taking risks, but is meant to advocate being open to the fact that certain risks must always be taken. In this, I echo Taleb's own statements within the book. Being ready for and being open to the naturally chaotic events which take place in our lives means that we can, in the end, have more control over how they turn out.
Knowing or predicting the black swan is of course impossible. If we could do either, it wouldn't be a black swan! But one must always be open to the possibility. If we accept the fact that, for example, we could always walk out the door tomorrow and be crushed to death in a car accident, we can prepare for such a possibility even at a young age (when we expect to have many years ahead of us) by putting our affairs in order so that we can provide for our loved ones after our deaths. Likewise, while we cannot predict the exact nature of other, similar black swan events, we can adopt a style of preparedness towards the future which allows us to be flexible, to react properly in the case of a black swan.
Learn to enjoy chaos. Chaos can make us or break us. States of uncertainty are our periods of greatest growth, because they expose us to the most outside influences. Every crisis is an opportunity. And after all, what opportunity does say, the destruction of New York by earthquake offer us? Old buildings will be cleared away, there will be space for new ones to be built. As long as we don’t grow too attached to old buildings, we can always build anew.