Things are uncertain.  Just how uncertain?  We generally don’t know, and as humans we are not particularly well-suited to deal with this.

That is the message of two books by Nassim Taleb, Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.  My friend Jim White from Rust Consulting, who has superb taste in books (more on that in a minute) recently sent me these (along with another, The Worst Hard Time). I picked up the first and couldn’t put it down.  I’m now about half-way through The Black Swan.  I will write about my thoughts on both when I’m done with the second. Here, I will only touch on the theory, as well as noting tangentially the power of books as gifts.

Briefly, a “black swan” is, in Taleb’s theory, an unpredictable event with enormous consequences – 9/11, for example.  Although the label is usually applied to negative events, black swans can be positive.  And the implications of black swans on history, and predicting the future, are huge.  Given the interconnectedness of modern cultures and economies, the contemporary relevance of black swans is obvious, but Taleb’s theory is that such events have always occurred, always unexpectedly, and always been the main drivers of history. I’m especially interested in Taleb’s theory because of its implications for human rationality, a subject I’ve discussed on many occasions.

As mentioned above, I don’t plan to discuss either book, or the theory, in detail here.  I’m plowing through The Black Swan along with numerous other books. I will instead close by noting that Jim White, my friend, has capitalized on an important concept.  A book, well-chosen, reflects well on both the giver and the recipient.  Jim’s choices of books to share, which have included Team of Rivals (before the President made it famous) and River of Doubt, reflect a sense of inquiry and predict that the reader shares the same curiosity. I often give books to others (three recent ones were The Trusted Advisor, Non-Zero, and The Moral Animal), but it takes real discernment to find non-fiction that genuinely opens new vistas for a recipient.  I aspire to have Jim’s judgment, but for now I will simply and gratefully benefit from it.