Killer Black Swans!

Black Swan O' Death
Photo Source – Richard Giles
I found this article on Nicholas Taleb to be really interesting.

There’s a lot in here that could and should be applied to education. It seems to touch on a lot of ideas that are circulating around the idea of “edupunk” but more importantly, to me anyway, is the idea that you can’t know everything, you can’t control everything and that failure and fun need to be built into the equation. That’s not how NCLB etc. see the world.

The short list below really doesn’t get at the full ideas so I recommend reading the whole article.
I’m not sure about some of them- like #8 but I think it should also be read with some humor and I heartily encourage “tease(ing) people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.” It is worth thinking about.

Above all, accept randomness. Accept that the world is opaque, majestically unknown and unknowable. From its depths emerge the black swans that can destroy us or make us free. Right now they’re killing us, so remember to shave. But we can tinker our way out of it. It’s what we do best. Listen to Taleb, an ancient figure, one of the great Mediterranean minds, when he says: “You find peace by coming to terms with what you don’t know.” Oh, and watch those carbs

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.

Black swans, by the way,

To explain: black swans were discovered in Australia. Before that, any reasonable person could assume the all-swans-are-white theory was unassailable. But the sight of just one black swan detonated that theory. Every theory we have about the human world and about the future is vulnerable to the black swan, the unexpected event. We sail in fragile vessels across a raging sea of uncertainty. “The world we live in is vastly different from the world we think we live in.”
emphasis mine

Comments on this post

  1. Bea Cantor said on June 3, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Hi Tom!

    Great post even if the picture didn’t show up for me.

    My favorite is #7. Maybe we should cut teachers who say “impossible” and “too hard” our of our schools, not only our social circle.

    A college professor used to say something similar to #4. He said we should always be more civilized than those we dealt with, and have the last word even if it was just a very polite “thank you”.

  2. Gardner said on June 6, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Lovely template, lovely post, lovely photo.

    I read this book about two months ago. I feel it is a great book, though it is / because it is relentlessly idiosyncratic even as it is very deliberately analytical. I was so taken with it that I brought it into my last day of “Introduction to Literary Studies” to talk about the way poetry was helpful in keeping us from being locked into one domain. The essence of metaphor is to cross domains. And the essence of poetry is metaphor. QED!

    I found the most moving part to be the chapter on living in the antechamber of hope. There’s both encouragement and a stern warning for those who strive for some kind of greatness. Taleb obviously strives for greatness but is rightly (in my view) impatient with those who define “greatness” in a very narrow way and thus make it easier to obtain.

    Taleb’s favorite writers are Montaigne and Bacon, essayists both, and interestingly different in their approach to the essay. I find this very interesting and a fruitful thing to think about.

    I look forward to reading this book again, and using it systematically (and freely, and creatively) in the next stages of my own work. Magnifico!

    P.S. For an excellent interview with Taleb that reveals much of the man and his mind, and contextualizes his thought very helpfully within the larger body of the discipline(s), check this out:

    http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2007/04/taleb_on_black.html

    On his home page , Taleb singles this interview out as his favorite so far. And I love his gloriously messy home page. I think of the disorder as both a moat and a mindmap.

  3. Tom said on July 28, 2008 at 10:18 am

    @Gardner-

    I really appreciate the positive comment.

    Sorry for the delay in replying. I figured I’d better read the book so that I’d have something intelligent to say and some context in which to say it. The only reason it took me this long is that the book coincided with a job change, a move and I’ve managed to beat out the birth of a third child by a week or two.

    I love the book. Taleb’s sense of humor and broad range (and depth) of interests really keep things interesting. I think I’ll have to buy this one.

    I see the whole idea as a pretty strong rationale for the kinds of skills that people are labeling “21st century skills.” The idea being that the future isn’t something we can predict very well in terms of job skills nor in terms of technology so to prepare students the skills need to be flexible and oriented towards continued learning and creation.

    I also feel like Taleb’s fight against subject blind narrowness is on track with a lot of what is going on in education today. You see so many people lock in to things and neglect context and other subjects- key things that would improve their understanding of their subject and their ability to communicate with and engage their students.

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