Book Reviews

Review of an Inspiring Book:’The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

To set a basic idea, a black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. This needs to be noted that perception on black swan events should not be biased as the ones which are only negative because they are just the uncertain ones which can be positives as well.

By Sahil Aggarwal

Book Facts

Publisher: Penguin Random House UK

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Genre: Epistemology

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Review of some books on basis of their content isn’t justified, especially when the book is indexed of 9 pages itself. Therefore I would like to keep the review limited to texture and essence of it.

If one thinks that world is an unfair place, the book will help make the belief stronger by demonstrating some real world examples where the unfairness has occurred at massive scale. Also, if it bothers you to know why and makes you curious about how it actually works, this book is right on point.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, former trader, and risk analyst whose work focuses on problems of randomness, probability, and uncertainty. Taleb’s a proud author of many published papers and books. His first non-technical book, Fooled by Randomness, about the underestimation of the role of randomness in life, published in 2001, was selected by Fortune as one of the smartest 75 books known. His second non-technical book, The Black Swan, about unpredictable events, was published in 2007, selling close to 3 million copies within 4 years of publication.

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Taleb isn’t a messenger of god who has come up with his literary work to justify god’s hidden ways and advocate it’s unfairness. This is also not a book of the kind of philosophy which pacifies the anxious and disheartened reader with ‘though unjust but life is good’ or ‘ultimately good things happen to good people’ kind of stuff.

To set a basic idea, a black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. This needs to be noted that perception on black swan events should not be biased as the ones which are only negative because they are just the uncertain ones which can be positives as well.

With publication of ‘The Black Swan’, Taleb has figured out some mind boggling enigma about uncertainty & randomness. It is an effort in the field of epistemology where the author explains everything we know about what we don’t know id est. high impact outlier events. The book tries to explore that:

  • Why it is that some probable things don’t happen?
  • Why is it that some completely unexpected stuff happens out of the blue?
  • What is the impact of Randomness in our lives?
  • How do concepts (likes of Mediocristan/Extremistan, narrative & round trip fallcy, barbell strategy) of randomness in relation to human cognitive limitations work?
  • How to embrace the positive black swans and mitigate the adverse impact of other kind?

And all of this through some unusual, absorbing and renowned stories of large improbable events that shaped our world and continue to surprise us.

Take Aways

The ‘black swan’ events won’t ever cease to occur as the world has been designed in such fashion. Therefore, instead of just being a mute spectator of these events, how about making use of them and benefiting from it? Surprisingly, by the end of the book, the author gives simple (certainly simpler compared to the enigma itself) insights into dealing with black swans to reduce the cost of losses and increase favourability from them. The insights/tricks don’t give a silly step by step ‘how-to’ guide but helps to establish consciousness (instead of shock) in the times of consequential outlier events.

In the initial part, the book talks about a concept of ‘round-trip fallacy’ that relates with an acronym used in the medical literature- NED, which stands for No Evidence of Disease whereas there is no such thing as END, Evidence of No Disease. I relate it with the title of the book, which actually is a metaphor. Though none of us have ever seen a black swan (no evidence found of any) but it doesn’t conclude that there can’t be any (evidence found of none).

Criticism

There are enough criticism by statisticians and scholars who say Taleb brags and sounds pompous in this book. Also, that he tries to impress readers by establishing concepts in irrelevant ways and through pseudo-science.

At the same time, there is another lot who feel that someone really took the pain to study the enigma and document it in the most interesting way possible. Surely, there are scholars who have written papers on this subject before but how many of them actually made it possible to captivate an average reader into fascination ? Taleb is not just a great writer but even a better researcher and the 25 pages of incredibly credible bibliography at the end of this book voice his authenticity.

If one garners some interest in this genre, I would recommend the book to be read not once but twice. First time to know what actually this book is and second time to deliberately focus to understand it!

Other recommended books of similar taste:

  1. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  3. The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

Have a good read and be ready for some ups and down in the journey.Now you have to expect the unexpected!


About the Author

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Sahil Aggarwal is an MBA graduate with a specialisation in Human Capital Management.  He describes himself as an immature ping pong player, voracious reader, avid writer, Urdu shayari lover, a street foodie by heart and a perpetual learner. He likes to read various genres of books such as philosophy, psychology, epistemology, biographies and of course fiction.

One of his favourite quotes is – “I wonder and gaze upon myself as an atom in the universe and the whole universe within the self.”

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