Black swans come in both positive and negative flavors

The 2021 CX.Report is coming soon at this year’s SXSW

There’s been plenty of talk over the past year about the “black swan” event of COVID-19.

Thanks to the work of Hajj Flemings, a friend and a CEO, I’ve long been thinking about how we use the word “black.” So I was intrigued by this letter to the Financial Times written last fall by a professor of finance, and the letter has stayed with me in the months since. The professor was urging us to stop saying “black” swan, due to its negative reinforcement of the word.

But then I discovered that when you dig deeper into the work of Nassim Taleb and his initial coining of the phrase, you notice that he never associated “black swan” with something negative. A black swan, to Taleb, is simply an unexpected happening. The metaphor is built upon the idea that white swans are more commonly found in nature. But every once in a while, there’s a black swan.

“In general, positive Black Swans take time to show their effect while negative ones happen very quickly — it is much easier and much faster to destroy than to build.” — Nassim Taleb

When you try to imagine positive black swans, it’s surprisingly difficult to do. As human beings we’re wired to survive. So we are really good at remembering the bad stuff that happens. But, when you start along the path, it’s totally possible:

  • A surprise birthday party when you thought you had no friends
  • A spot bonus from your boss when finances were really tight
  • A full scholarship offer to the longshot college of your dreams

Those might be more like positive black cygnets. (Positive surprise for me today! I certainly didn’t know there was a word for a baby swan :+) And yet maybe they’re even better than the big ones when you need it. I certainly love my positive black cygnet encounters!

More typical COVID-19-level positive black swans that come to mind from the technology world would be things like:

  • The advent of electricity
  • The first transistor
  • The emergence of the World Wide Web

In a less tech-nerd way, a few people that come to mind as positive black swans who transformed culture would be leaders like:

  • Nelson Mandela
  • Helen Keller
  • Winston Churchill

It’s interesting how many of our society’s heroes are folks whose thinking persists throughout the ages because they often represent an unexpected point of view that succeeds in disrupting the norm. Though whether it’s technology or leaders, to Taleb’s point, positive black swans take a lot longer to make a difference than the negative ones. From the technology point of view, I touched upon this in a previous post on the topic of disruptive innovations that happen at two time scales: short and long.

It might help to recalibrate what society thinks when they hear black swan: It’s not about the color of the bird, but the rarity of unexpected happenings.

So the next time you hear the phrase “black swan” come up in a Zoom or dinner conversation, don’t forget to talk about the positive black swans out there. It might help to recalibrate what society thinks when they hear black swan: It’s not about the color of the bird, but the rarity of unexpected happenings. It’s about the math. It’s about the fact that both good and bad things can happen to you or your organization. It’s not about all bad. It’s not about all good. It’s about the unexpecte

I’ll be walking through the various components of the safety stack in my upcoming CX Report to be presented at SXSW in March and entitled, “Safety Eats The World.” And if the topic of How To Speak Machine interests you, there’s a book for that. Stay tuned! — JM

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Happily working at Everbridge☁️ :+).

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