Surprising Creatures

It wasn’t until I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, that my naturalist sensibilities became attuned to proliferating species of surprise. They are everywhere! As the years tick by, I have come to think that understanding the origins of surprise are fundamental to solving the greatest challenges of our times–including those so-called “black elephants!” (This is the main reason I am devoting a whole blog to the subject.)

How we learn, create, and share knowledge…how innovations occur…what role collaboration and teamwork play in fomenting breakthrough thinking…how the subconscious mind works with our conscious selves…how sparks of serendipity ignite new possibilities… All such themes and more belong in an examination of the “black elephants” of our times. But why am I talking about black elephants when I started with “black swans?” Clearly our taxonomy for surprising creatures needs attention. So let’s get started!

Before all these metaphors entered our lexicon, most of us were familiar with the thought cloud images from cartoons, showing a bright lightbulb over someone’s head! The lightbulb signified a new idea!!! Archimedes in the bathtub shouting “Eureka”…that’s another visual image of surprise.


Image: Google Images

But in recent years, particularly since the Financial Crisis of 2008, we’ve seen a stampede of elephants and hippos, flights of swans and hummingbirds, and pots of boiling frogs cross our fields of vision. What in the world is going on? Are we more prone to be surprised these days? Surprising creatures are helping us to make sense of these developments: let’s begin with the “black swan.”

The Black Swan…

Unless you live in Australia, black swans are rare and, according to Taleb, in most of the world–before the discovery of Australia–the absence of black swans led to an unexamined assumption that all swans are white. Such unexamined assumptions are typical to all of us: having a cognitive framework, or mental map of how the world works, enables us to function. The downside (one of many) to how we go about making sense of things normally is that our knowledge is limited by what we have observed or experienced. The size of our ‘sample set’–or real-world experiences–influences our concepts of reality and possibilities for the future.

Taleb tells us that his metaphor for a “black swan” event comprises three attributes:

  • It is an “outlier” in the sense that it “lies outside the realm of regular expectations.” Nothing in our experience has prepared us for this possibility.
  • It carries an extreme impact.
  • It was “predictable” but only in hindsight! (Taleb says, our human nature persuades us, after experiencing an outlying event with an extreme impact, that it was predictable.)

In Taleb’s view, the way our human brain is wired makes what we don’t know more important than what we do know:

“Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected,” he writes.

Our concept of what is “normal” tends to rule out outliers and uncertainty.  But, more and more, what we’re learning, from the “law of large numbers” and other principles of improbability, is that what seems normal often is not!  So, how do we manage in a world of surprising creatures like the black swan? It turns out that rare events are behind most breakthroughs in human history…so understanding how we get locked into assumptions, and when we need to unlock our assumptions, seems critically important not only to business success but perhaps survival in all its meanings.

Coming up: I’ll look at what Steven Johnson, the author of so many great books on where good ideas come from, says about the “hummingbird effect” in his new book, How We Got To Now. Why does it matter to know how we got to now?