For centuries, swans were white. The idea that swans could possibly come in another color has a long history and, I think, an appealing relevance to daily life.
For the Romans, a “black swan” was a synonym for an impossibility. In philosophy, it stood for the remote 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, or the progress of science. Such turning points, he argued, result not from the normal course of affairs but from occurrences that seem unpredictable at one time and that in retrospect experts 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).
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 other life-changing events have roots in what has been on-going near us all along but out of our sight. We discover, for example, that a person we know well has an unexpected dark side or a shining one. An unknown ancestor or relative 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 bump into him or her 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.
Black swan events in general remind us how limited our knowledge is. Although black swan surprises can be pleasant, positive ones, people usually like to feel confident about their understanding of things. A black swan event seems aptly named not because the event can be negative but because the massiveness of the unknown that could step into our lives at any moment, for better or worse, feels ominous.