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To prosper in life, expect the unexpected

“It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan?”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (2007)

Long before I ever set eyes on the paragraph shown in the box, I had concluded that life is inherently unplannable. As a young boy, I was inclined to be a ‘let’s-plan-it-all-out-carefully’ personality, rather than a ‘just-go-with-the-flow’ one. Until, that is, a series of short, sharp shocks taught me that there is really nothing of significance I am going to plan in my life.

A series of unforeseeable, low-probability events caused enormous upheaval in my life, leading to a change in country (twice), in personal circumstance, to impoverishment as well as a degree of enrichment. I recognise that all those things had little to do with any planning I did; they just happened, mostly out of the blue. I saw that John Lennon was right: life is indeed what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s now-famous book, The Black Swan, should be read by every thinking person on the planet. Whether or not you agree with it or like his in-your-face style, it will make you reconsider your views about the world around you and the life you lead. Taleb’s main thesis is that the world is shaped by ‘Black Swans’ – low-probability, high-impact events. Having seen only white swans in our lives, we are seduced into thinking that swans are always white – until one day a black swan is discovered and we are left re-examining all our assumptions.

Taleb details plenty of highly improbable events that have had a huge impact on history. The point is, no one saw those events coming. In 1914, did anyone really imagine the chain of events that would plunge the world into a cataclysmic world war? In September 2001, who could have foreseen the coming down of the Twin Towers, and the shape of international relations that followed that event? In the 1980s, who really saw precisely what the Internet would do to the way we all work?

It is the same in all our personal lives. It is in our nature to plan things out, but we fail to see the futility of most planning. Most, mind you, not all. If we abdicated from planning completely, life would be chaotic. We must indeed impose some order, but understand the limits of orderliness. Once we accept that unforeseeable things happen to us and our organisations all the time, we will change the way we address the future. Instead of trying to plan it all out in precise detail, we will focus on essentials: developing the skills to cope with change; and building the resilience to accept wrenching upheaval.

“Every boxer has a plan, until he takes the first punch in the face.” I don’t know who said that, but I love quoting it at every turn. Character is more important than preparation; strategy is more about personality than planning. We will have richer lives if we accept that we will be down on the floor many times. Our greatness is in how we get up, not in avoiding the fall.

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