How keeping a journal can help fend off Black Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb courts controversies like he drinks wine – always one too many. Yet, neither the drink nor the endless drone of his critics has managed to stifle him. Not one bit. A risk analyst-turned-scholar, Taleb is resolute in both his ways and words.

The most influential person in global finance

It is easy to dislike him. But the few who do also remark how Taleb may be one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. The Times certainly did and was followed not too long by Forbes and Bloomberg, among many others.

Part of this reverence, and of course, the criticism that comes Taleb’s way, stems from the idea that he is right – about a lot of things, but more specifically, about the frailty of economic institutions and by extension, us.

Taleb is credited widely for predicting (correctly) the banking and economic collapse of 2008 in one of his books, The Black Swan. Since it’s release in 2007, it has sold over 3 million copies. The Sunday Times listed it as one of twelve most influential books since World War II.

Why journal?

“The world is far too complex for anyone to understand what is going on,” Taleb writes in The Black Swan.

Taleb says.

He also offers a remedy to make sense of all this madness that spiral around us: Keep a journal.

It is nowhere more clear than in a paragraph from The Black Swan.

Taleb writes that “while we have a highly unstable memory, a diary [or a journal] provides indelible facts recorded more or less immediately; it thus allows the fixation of an unrevised perception and enables us to later study events in their context.”

[Picture: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Source: The Guardian]

On Black Swans

The world is filled with “black swans” – highly improbable events with three principal characteristics: unpredictability, massive impact, and, after the fact, we stitch together an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.

The birth of the Internet, the World Wars, the 9/11, the rise of ISIS and more recently, of course, the coronavirus pandemic that has engulfed the world. They are all black swans. They dictate everything.

There are black swans in your personal lives too – that job you lost, the cancer you beat, the lottery you won. Looking back it might seem as if we somehow willed those experiences into existence. However, it could not be farther from the truth.

A good journal is a road map

In keeping a journal and in diving into it time and again, we are throwing a clear light on an incident that happened a long while ago. By examining our own details of the emotions that transpired in us then, we are dispelling the clouds of vagueness and navigating ourselves to a better understanding of the present.

Some diary writers, on checking their records from World War II, found that they had then thought the conflict to be over “in a matter of weeks.”

This gives us a glimpse into a lot of things – the hope people then carried, about the war and how its end was nigh, and also offers us yet another avenue to unpack the grief that they would have experienced when war stretched on for years, far longer than what they had anticipated.

A good journal then is like a road map. By journaling every day, you are leaving behind key lessons for you future-self to draw strength from in moments of adversity.

When they hate you with a passion, write it down

Taleb too has drawn from previous experiences to foster his future. In the mid-2000s, when Taleb warned of the impending crash, “the finance industry hated [him] with a passion”.

“People made fun of me. It was really horrible. Between 2004 and 2008 were the worst years of my life. Everybody thought I was an idiot,” Taleb confesses to Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian.

Financial journalist Michael Lewis who profiled a collection of individuals who saw the crash coming and shorted the market labelled Taleb as a “social misfit”.

It takes a certain sort of personality to stand apart from the herd. But what propelled Taleb on was his conviction that he is right. This has been engineered from past experiences, his successes.

The future is not in your hands

Black swans continue to surprise us and shape our world. We cannot foresee the future. We can only prepare for it.

Taleb certainly has. Now a successful author, Taleb spends his time in Brooklyn, USA where is a distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute.

With Taleb, spats and fights have to be expected. When he is not complaining about how the Nobel prize for economics is a fraud or rubbishing bankers in his essays, Taleb could be seen berating his critics on Twitter.

But sitting on the millions he made off the financial crisis (which he warned everyone about and got so much hate for), he has that luxury. Or taking on the whole economic establishment necessitates one to be so. We’d never know.

One thing is certain. There would be more black swans coming our way without a moment’s notice. Amid all this, it is easy to lose our way. We must be reminded time and again of my ambitions, the seeds that have got us thus far and what it may take to push us forward. Keeping a journal, as Taleb suggests, is the best way to go!


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