The Black Swan

SwanThe late 1st Century Roman Poet Juvenal is generally credited with the earliest written reference to the Black Swan and like so much of his work it was satirical.

He characterised something as being  ”a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan” by which he pretty much meant  what we might mean when we say  it was “as scarce as hens teeth”. As far as we know hens do not have teeth and as far as the non-Australian parts of the world at his time knew there was no such thing as a Black Swan. It is not the only saying of Juvenal we remember. “Who guards the guardians” is another one of his. The phrase Black Swan passed into European use and used to describe things that did not exist.

European scientists also went about establishing the credentials of a swan and were able to determine ‘scientifically’ that all swans were white.

When the Dutch Sea Captain Willem de Vlamingh sailed up a river on the West Coast of Australia he would name the Swan River on the 10th of January 1697 he encountered the improbable, indeed to his mind the impossible.

Of course, today, we know that there are Black Swans and it is easy for us miss the importance of this. The Aboriginal People of Australia always knew about Black Swans. The problem is when that which you know is true is radically overturned it is confronting and disturbing, possibly also an opportunity to grow, but it is quite unsettling.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has outlined a theory of how we deal with these events, his “Black Swan Theory”. Some Black Swan events are positive and some are negative, but they all take us by surprise and called us to radically rethink our reality, and probably involve some rationalization as to why we did not see it coming. The destruction to the World Trade Centre was effectively a Black Swan Event. Nobody was expecting it, nobody saw it coming, and it caused us all to rethink our world. His book is a fairly hard read, and is very focused on he commercial and the financial ‘Black Swan Events. Of course by their very definition it is impossible to predict Black Swan events, yet we know that must happen if we are to extend and expand our encounter with the world.

Perhaps it is a bit Pythonesque – ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’

It occurs to me that there are many Black Swan events which we all encounter and it is often more spiritual than simple financial markets. The New Testament Greek term ‘metanoia’ often translated as conversion and implies a complete turn around, suggests and certainly is often associated with a Black Swan Event.

The Black Swan is something we were not expecting that causes us to radically adjust our thinking. In a way how we deal with the Black Swan is the making of us, by their very nature we can not plan for them.

You can not search for a Black Swan, you will not know where to look, and it needs to surprise you.


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