For centuries, swans were white. The idea that swans could come in another color has a long history and, I think, an appealing relevance to ordinary life.
For the Romans, a “black swan” was a synonym for an impossibility. In philosophy, it stood for the unlikely possibility that an assumption might be wrong. Then in 1697 an expedition led by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh found black swans swimming in Australia. Swans were no longer defined as white birds.
Recently Nassim Nicholas Taleb revived interest in the phrase in two books written in 2001 and 2007. Taleb extended the term “black swan” to unpredictable or unlikely events that can impact financial markets, history, and the progress of science. Such turning points, he argued, result not from the normal course of affairs but from occurrences that seemed unpredictable at the time and that in retrospect we think we could have seen coming. Examples include the start of World War I, the discovery of the Internet, and September 11th from the point of view of Americans (Wikipedia). I think genetic mutations that lead to evolutionary adaptations are examples as well.
But I’m interested in black swan events of a more personal nature and defined a little differently. I think of a black swan as something or someone that has been in existence for a while but has been unknown to us until it, he, or she intersects with our lives and creates a significant change of some kind.
Usually, we think of the events that impact us as emerging from current circumstances, as having just happened—the boss fires us because the business is failing, a car crashes into ours, our short story wins a prize. But in reality many life-changing events have roots in something that has been on-going, near us all along but out of our sight. We may discover, for example, that a person we know well has an unexpected dark side, or a shining one. An unknown relative or ancestor may show up in an analysis of our DNA, or at our front door. The love of your life may have been living one street over for years or decades until you bumped into each other at the corner. And even within oneself, the black swan of a dormant disease or a hidden talent may suddenly spread its wings. I’ve known people who have experienced variations of all such black swans. They have an eerie always-been-around-but-just-out-of-reach quality.
So black swan events in general remind us how limited our knowledge is, even our knowledge about everyday life. We’re not very comfortable with such reminders. We need to feel confident about our understanding of things, and too much exposure to the enormity of the unknown can be paralyzing. A black swan event seems aptly named not because the event is sometimes negative but because the massiveness of the unknown that could step into our lives at any moment, for better or worse, feels ominous.