Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Monday, May 4, 2020
In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote “The Black Swan,” a book that has become the benchmark for how to consider certain events that have three particular characteristics, namely rarity, extreme impact and retrospective predictability.
I like the words “retrospective predictability,” because it clearly suggests that we should have known it was coming. We might not know when, but the odds of it occurring are absolutely greater than zero. You can argue degrees of likelihood, but random is not the same as never. Consider driving drunk (accident waiting to happen and maybe jail) or climate change (funny how the air is so clean today when no one is driving a car) or 9/11 (there was a memo) or the 2008 housing debacle (aka “liar loans”) or the coronavirus (SARS, H1N1, etc.) retrospective predictability.
Taleb uses an example of the turkey who is fed every day by friendly members of the human race (substitute the word politician) who claim to be looking out for his best interests — until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Taleb calls this a “revision of belief.”
From an entrepreneur’s standpoint, months of strategic planning got tossed out the window in the last 45 days. I wonder if we were not as strategic as we should have been. For sure, one outcome of the coronavirus is a keen awareness of the fragility of the total supply chain. Whether it is masks or meat, there aren’t enough when severe stress is applied to the system. I remind you of Metcalf’s Law — the power of the network is the square of the number of connected users. That does suggest that going it alone vs. we are all in this together might have some serious limitations.
I deeply understand our reliance on the power of the personal network. When you need a service or a skill, and you need it an hour ago, you immediately go to your network, the people you have worked with, whom you know. They will jump in. You do not have time to do 12 interviews to get the exact right person; if you need a fireman with a hose, I assure you there is no time to measure the nozzle or check references. It is a cohort that echoes a way of thinking and acting that takes its old-school model from the Marines or the SEALs. And at this moment “the next man up” is The Doctor and The Nurse. Where do these heroes come from?
For some thoughts, I turned to David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times. He recently wrote about the “coddling” of America — a belief that “a tide of safety-ism” has crept over our society. In essence, he is saying America has indulged in the “overprotective impulse.” We ban dodgeball, we inflate grades, we cater to children’s fears, we prescribe anti-anxiety medicine like gumdrops. But somewhere, somehow, we still find battle-hardened men and women who are “trained to run into the fire, who are trained to save lives.” It is the rigor and the pressure of medical training. There is no pass/fail in medical school.
I recently watched a “60 Minutes” story about the doctors in New York City and what they face every day with a dedication and compassion that is beyond belief. And I cried. We are blessed here in San Diego. To a large extent, the coronavirus has spared us. We sheltered early, and we were aggressive with our closures. When to open the beaches is not an issue of the same magnitude as seeing hundreds of refrigerator trucks doubling as morgues to hold all the dead bodies at Brooklyn Hospital.
Brooks writes that “excellence is not an action, it is a habit. Tenacity is not a spontaneous flowering of good character. It is doing what you were trained to do. It manifests not in those whose training spared them hardship, but in those whose training embraced hardship.” And it is at moments like right now that this country turns to and depends on that level of excellence and dedication. I do not have enough words of gratitude.
Finally, Brooks wonders about the younger generation and suggests that giving everyone a medal for just showing up will not be enough to get us through the next Swan.
Rule No. 657
It IS a matter
of life and death.