Tinker Away

It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.

–Carl Jung

For the last few weeks my view of the world has been shifted significantly by reading The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Written in 2007 but recently released with updated footnotes, the book has been provoking and inspiring shifts in thinking in a variety of disciplines. It has a horizontality that reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, that landmark book that appeared in 1962 and introduced the brand new concepts of paradigms and paradigm shifts to science, history, sociology, psychology et al.

Taleb’s “Black Swan Events” theory is offered up to explain the following:

1) The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations
2) The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to their very nature of small probabilities)
3) The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.

It’s a great name. There are no black swans in the Northern Hemisphere so whiteness was assumed to be an essential quality of swanness. When a Dutch explorer spotted a black one on an expedition to Australia in 1697, that concept had to be restated. It is a simple but useful analogy for how fragile a system of thought actually can be. Our assumptions, whether they result from reason, logic, falsifiability and/or evidence, can be undone in a moment.

From a review of the book by Will Self:

The Black Swans of the title aren’t simply known unknowns; there are unknown unknowns – events, or inventions, or runaway successes, or indeed contingencies of any kind – for which no statistical analysis, or inductive reasoning can possibly arm us. They are events like 9/11, or Black Monday, or publishing phenomena like the Harry Potter books, or inventions such as the internet, all of which alter the human world.

And from Taleb himself:

Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them.) There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them. Indeed, in some domains—such as scientific discovering and venture capital investments—there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown, since you typically have little to lose and plenty to gain from a rare event…the strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves…The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.

It is not surprising that a number of venture capitalists have embraced Taleb’s approach as their investment modus operandi. Taleb was a Wall Streeter at one point (don’t hold it against him although he certainly has no shortage of tonal arrogance) so his examples are primarily in the financial/economic realm. But I read this book as an artist’s manifesto, correlating with another variation on the value of tinkering that came up in the conversation between technologists Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (and written about here.) As Kelly colloquially put it, “to create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.” Or as Johnson phrased it, “You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.”

So tinker away. Be willing to err, to fail, to “set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans.” And Emily Dickinson’s take on the adjacent possible seems right in line with Taleb, Kelly and Johnson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

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51 comments

  1. runtobefit’s avatar

    I will definitely have to check this book out!

    http://www.runtobefit.wordpress.com

  2. Mikalee Byerman’s avatar

    Love this post — specifically this line:

    “Our assumptions, whether they result from reason, logic, falsifiability and/or evidence, can be undone in a moment.”

    Everything can change in a moment. I’m living proof: My marriage ended with a brick. A literal, actual brick. (I blogged about this, if you’re curious — you just can’t make this stuff up, I’m telling ya…)

    Thanks for sharing — I’d like to read the book!

  3. dearexgirlfriend’s avatar

    nice use of the ED poem at the end…capped off a great post beautifully.
    http://dearexgirlfriend.com/

  4. somethinglooseknit’s avatar

    Beautiful post. I love the idea that the universe isn’t entirely predictable, that there is still mystery in the world that can’t be wrangled into an equation. Chaos can be frightening, but it’s also exhilarating, and necessary, and inevitable.

  5. Kathryn McCullough’s avatar

    Totally fascinating! My blog from Port-au-Prince, “reinventing the event horizon,” addresses a kind of black swan phenomenon I notice here in Haiti. Go to http://www.reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/haiti-cholera-and-other-mind-bending-events/ for a discussion of this dynamic. I have to read Taleb’s book! Thanks for sharing and congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  6. Evie’s avatar

    Thanks for sharing, this book sounds fascinating! Must check it out!

    evelyngarone.com

  7. CrystalSpins’s avatar

    Revery…there isn’t enough revery nowadays.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

  8. enjoibeing’s avatar

    i really gotta check this book out now. sounds like a fascinating book.

    http://enjoibeing.wordpress.com/

  9. Shanna VanNorman’s avatar

    Emily Dickinson

    To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
    One clover, and a bee,
    And revery.
    The revery alone will do,
    If bees are few.

    Beautiful — continue to inspire me and those around you. May we all be as blessed as you to follow our true passions and not be afraid to fail.

    Kudos on being freshly pressed.

    http://bigbangbang.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/quality-of-life-a-guide-to-live-the-life-of-your-dreams/

    Much love,

    Shan

  10. willharvey’s avatar

    Nice little ppost – you write really well. would love to have that magic dusted over my blog – http://fresheyeddeer.wordpress.com/

  11. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

    Thanks to all of you, so many great comments. And a lovely introduction to many great blogs that are new to me.

  12. Sunflowerdiva’s avatar

    Great post. Sounds like a very interesting book. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  13. typhoidterri’s avatar

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed. This thought can apply to people we meet that are in-between “acquaintance” and “friend.” They are there for a purpose that takes time to figure out.

  14. lochgarry’s avatar

    A good posting to ponder on the vicissitudes of reality.
    As we make our journey on this planet, our lives have many “black swans” in the ponds about us. What happened to our company’s computer system this afternoon was definitely a black swan.
    Happy holidays!

  15. Tori’s avatar

    Love your work. Hope you’ll check mine out if you get time:

    http://www.ToriScott.net

  16. Marisa Young’s avatar

    Koan-esque!

  17. blackshepherd’s avatar

    I used to believe in serendipity but a few “anomolies” have emerged so I’ve had to allow the concept to evole…at present it is in the SERENDIPSHITITY formulation awaiting further permutations…I used to be a simple dipshit until I tried to ride a black swan to Jupiter…I learned that they don’t like passengers…or maybe it’s just me they don’t like…see I’m not sure of anything anymore…oh! fiddlesticks whatever will I do now? Well, I’m a dipshit…I think that’s safe to say but I’m not sure what can be built on a premise like that…maybe a dipshitsidoodle factory…any venture capitalists reading this…?

  18. elirosswriter’s avatar

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, and it’s always great to see poetry from Miss Emily (Wayne Carver, that’s for you). Just a few weeks ago I read something that attacked the over-reliance on Kuhn’s model of paradigm shift as an explanation for changes in practice within the field of education. Wish I could remember the source and the exact point, but it was something about the dangers of attributing change to a real shift in paradigms. Sometimes change is just a reversal to old ways of thinking.
    Congrats on being fresh pressed! Would that be considered a “black swan event”? It’ll change your world a bit, but all for the good!

  19. ixult’s avatar

    nice post and congrats on getting freshly pressed

  20. akacheshire’s avatar

    i just joined.you were the 1st i clicked on,very impressive.im gonna like this sight!hello and thanks for giving us-we the people some good reading for a change.ya!

  21. G’s avatar

    Don’t you find it odd that Taleb’s view on everything is now sought out even though he only has this one simple idea of note?

    Every time I read him talking on some topic or other, it’s always with this self-assured throwaway style, like he’s so iconoclastic he’s above and beyond explaining his views. When Oscar Wilde does a sort-of similar thing, I find it less often annoying and more often wise.

  22. Heather CJ Atkins’s avatar

    I’m glad you shared Steven Johnson’s quote:
    “You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.”
    An overwhelmingly relevant and influential excerpt!

  23. malik11397’s avatar

    Excellent reading material. Thanks for a good job!
    Malik
    http://www.fastbankruptcynevada.com

  24. inidna’s avatar

    That sounds like a really interesting book–the image of Black Swans is very alluring. Despite the fact that unpredictability of the universe can bring some really terrible things, I think it’s exciting and really fascinating to know that there is still so much that we don’t know and never will be able to (unless it strikes that right moment).

    Great words too: “So tinker away. Be willing to err, to fail, to “set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans.” Congrats on being Freshly Pressed :)

  25. who’s avatar

    excellent post, and sometimes we are literally right on the verge of great new understandings and all it takes is a slight shift. Sometimes it is us that makes everything so confusing by the names we brand or label concepts such as a “100 year flood”
    It’s not a flood that probability says will happen every hundred years, but rather every year it has a one in one hundred (1/100) chance of happening

  26. newauthoronamazon’s avatar

    nice post …enjoyed reading it

  27. connetta’s avatar

    so true….i believe what we do today will pay off tomorrow..but it can also be just the thing that scews up tomorrow in the end.

  28. kerryoncanlit’s avatar

    As soon as I saw reference to Jung, Kuhn and Dickenson I knew you were a blogger to watch! Lovely post. Belief in the black swan is a potent source of hope for anyone trapped in mundanity or worse. They (black swans, that is) have, over the years, kept my life lively!

  29. Gbenga Awomodu’s avatar

    Great post you got here and I also love the depth of research and clarity in articulation. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  30. ybertto’s avatar

    Thanks a lot Deborah for those words. I remember very well the reading of kuhn and a 14 upon 20 for a home work. Now I’ve shifted to saint Augustine De Magistro, a beautiful text. To be put in every hand !

  31. Website Technology’s avatar

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  32. nigeil’s avatar

    This is a really cool post, It never really occurred to me how much effect one small oddity or change can make on an entire system of thought. It really boggles my mind sometimes how we are intertwined on an unseeable level, and we can never know the full consequences of even the most trivial actions (such as commenting on this blog post)

  33. therosewoodbeast’s avatar

    Beautiful writings. Wear your skeleton on the inside out, an keep your insect heart secret. <3
    ~Britta

  34. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

    What a great one–skeleton on the outside, insect heart secret. Love that! Thanks Britta!

  35. empath27’s avatar

    This thought process is not unlike the one in the book “The Secret.” More or less the point of the book is what you put out there you get back. You want to do something with your life, you make a plan outline from A-Z dictating how you can get there. Doggedly pursue it, get down to the letter P on your list and out of nowhere some unforseen circumstance literally lifts you up and puts you in a position to either do it or something even better that you didn’t know you wanted in the first place. Either way your hard work pays off because you rose to the challenge.

  36. Margie’s avatar

    “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards
    could produce the complete works of Shakespeare;
    now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Unknown Author.
    I think that the blogging community is a great way for people to “tinker” – to create mostly crap, and now and then send out, or find a Black Swan.

  37. returnoftheheroes’s avatar

    I read this book a while ago after readign his other book Fooled by Radnomness but despite it beign a interesting book i have to say i struggled in parts as he seemed to either repeating himself or going on about how clever he was , often it was a combination of both. It was a while ago now but that was the over riding memory of the book. Glad you liked it though.
    I think the biggest thing i got from his first book was we only see the winners such as the succesful trader but what we don’t see are the hundread other ones who didn’t make it.

  38. sayitinasong’s avatar

    What a beautifully written post. I am going to check out Black Swan Events for myself…

  39. chalkboardchestnuts’s avatar

    Thank goodness for the combination of cheese and pickle – without it what would little girls do? Seriously though, I used to have a swan as a pet. It wasn’t a real swan mind you, or even a real pet but you can’t have everything…

  40. 1MereMortal’s avatar

    Excellent post…well done.

  41. writingfate’s avatar

    The point here is: one must have a courage to be unique. :-)

  42. somethingnewplease’s avatar

    Enjoyable analysis. You make me want to tell everything else to hold that pose, so I can take time to read the work. The Jungian quote is nicely chosen.

    I do not do well with rare events that I enjoy. I always want to recreate them, and there are so many…

    Thank you for the thoughts,
    D.

  43. arjunasoctopus’s avatar

    Good post!

    I like the cognitive flip that Black Swan hunting implies – that the things that have not happened are more important than the things that have in dictating future events. I work at a group that looks at “weak signals” and sees how these can impact on the world if they become more mainstream. Provokes extraordinary debate.

    I love the connection with Jung – this relation to the unknown – or unknowable and it’s potential for guiding one’s life I think is part of the magic underpinning the popularity of the book – as well as its “tonal arrogance”

    Thanks for sharing your insights!!

  44. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

    Arjunasoctopus, can you say anything more about the weak signals approach? I went to your blog and didn’t find a reference to that. Very intriguing lens for viewing.

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