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bird poops on plum branch


Buster Benson

No advice column.

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5: Black swans
bird poops on plum branch

You can't prove that every swan is white, no matter how many white swans you find.  But if you find one black swan, you can prove that not every swan is white.  The black swan can be a metaphor for the impossible or completely unexpected... we generally expect things to happen a certain way, and live under the assumptions that things will unfold generally as we imagine them.  That's the only practical way to live without constantly having a heart attack.  There are so many reasons to not think about black swans... when you get in a car it's difficult to think about the freak accident that could happen at each corner.  When you go to sleep you can't imagine all the ways you might not wake up in the morning.  When you say goodbye to someone you can't imagine that it might be the last time you see them.  You can't practically live as if every day is your last.  On the other hand, you also can't expect every person you meet to be the one that saves your life, or introduces you to your soul mate.  There are just as many good black swans as bad.

And then sometimes you find a black swan.  You win the lottery, fall madly in love, Yellowstone erupts, planes crash into the World Trade Center, you find your true purpose in life, you publish a best seller, etc.  The most significant events in our life, the ones that we look back on as the key events that formed who we are as a person, are usually black swans.  You can't necessarily explain to someone how to produce the same results that you got.  And when we think about the future, we can't necessarily hope for black swans to appear.  Even though they were useful in our past, the are unreliable in our future.  And so our future plans use a different model for reality than our past path.  Inevitably, we experiment with our lives trying to uncover the good black swans... doing things that other people did to find their black swan... but because there's no set recipe, it's pretty difficult to know which experiments will work and which will fail.

So, what's better, to dig blindly for black swans, or to expect all swans to be white?  What is the use of acknowledging the existence of black swans if there's no way to put this knowledge into practice?  Is it possible to set traps for good black swans, and prepare for bad black swans?  Or is it a paranoid and unrealistically naive way to live?  The practical way to live is to divide out the black swans and live as if they didn't exist, until they appear, since there is no telling where they would come from anyway.  Practical, but cold, and jaded, I think. 

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yeah, and people walk upside down right?!

And we have summer in January!

Buster, I love your posts. I like to think that the only part we have control over is making a nice hospitable place for nice black swans to visit, and to trust that we'll be able to handle the not-nice ones when they come to visit. It's all we can do. Life is funny.

life is totally funny. and you're right. the best thing to do is to prepare a good playground for black swans. perfect!

Expose yourself to bulk, positive randomness and be ready to take advantage of it.


Happy Birthday, Buster McLeod! I miss you. Have a gentle hangover.

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