Sunday, February 3, 2008

Harnessing The Power Of Good Black Swans

* image of a complex system taken from http://www.necsi.org/, the New England Complex Systems Institute.Nassin Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan [ see http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/ ] is about the great impact that highly improbable events can cause in financial markets, in history, in natural events, on our working life, in our personal relationships etc. Taleb makes us aware of and fear black swans. But not all black swans are bad. There are good black swans too. In life, highly improbable events can lift you up to heights never imagined in your wildest dreams.
The obscure writer/musician who was 'discovered' and rose to stardom. The small businessman who had a lucky break, a chance meeting that led to success. That first job interview with an interviewer who liked you. The lonely Blog or the YouTube video that, by word of mouth,and being in the right place at the right time drew a million visitors a day. These are all examples of riding to the sky on a black swan.
Non-linearity, the Power Law, Chaos Theory, feedback loops, network theory, grids and nodes, properties of Emergence. These are stuff from which black swans are spawned. These black swan laws also give those who ascended the heights riding on a black swan an unfair advantage. "For to those who have, more shall be given, and to those who have not, even that shall be taken away." Something to that effect is written in the the Bible, somewhere in Ezekiel I think. What it transates to is that once you have taken off, and attained 'critical mass' you are in common language 'on a roll' and 'made for life' unless you do something which puts you in the path of a big bad black swan. As a corollary, if you are not yet at the take-off stage, it's going to be a tough job to reach that stage.
You can make black swans work for you. The trick is to maximize your exposure to good black swans while minimizing your exposure to bad black swans. Here are some examples from business and daily life:
1.Businesses which are scaleable are more likely to be visited by black swans. How many plates of noodle can the famous cook with his secret recipe and impeccable control of wok and fire sell? This is a business which is not scaleable. On the other hand, take the case of a well-known financial analyst who writes reports on the stock market and sells them over the internet. Once a report has been written and uploaded to the website, the difference in cost between selling 10 or 100 or 1000 reports is minimal. His business is much more scaleable. If one of his reports were to be reviewed or mentioned in something like the Wall Street Journal, he has a good chance of being visited by a good black swan.
2. Besides being scaleable, businesses which have global reach have a greater chance of growing very big, simply because their market is the whole world. Here again, internet businesses have a clear advantage.
3. Do something which gives you more opportunities to meet as many people as possible. A chance meeting, a meeting of minds, a kind helping hand, could set off a train of events that could not have been foreseen. If you are so fortunate as to have ridden high on a black swan, and had the time to reflect on and trace the events which led to your present situation, you may be amazed at how one thing led to another, one person led to many others, and how your network of connections grew at an exponential rate.
4. Make yourself more exposed to many good black swans, but limit your exposure to bad black swans. In any situation always ask yourself: (1)"what is the maximum that I can gain from this decision" and (2)"what is the maximum I can lose from this decision ?" If (1) far outweighs (2), then go for it.

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