In his book, The Black Swan; and in many keynotes, investor and best-selling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb relays a story about a turkey. This particular turkey is living his best life — he’s fed every single morning by a farmer for 1,000 days in a row. Each new day, each new feeding, the turkey starts getting more comfortable knowing each visit from the farmer means more food. It’s the only ‘lifestyle’ the turkey knows. Sun comes up, the farmer brings food. But on Day 1,001, close to Thanksgiving, the farmer comes not with food, but with an axe. Suddenly, the turkey realizes his expectations are way off: “On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.” says Taleb.
In a nutshell, Taleb’s story illustrates the “black swan” predicament — those unexpected events that happen when we rely on using past events to predict the future. As Taleb notes, “Just because you never died before, doesn’t make you immortal,”
And while Taleb is credited with further developing the theory in 2001 as it relates to hard-to-predict and rare events, the phrase “black swan” goes back to 2nd-century Rome. Later, it became a common expression in 16th century London used to connote something thought not to exist. At the time, the presumption was that all swans must be white because history up until then hadn’t reported the occurrence of a black swan. The metaphor highlights the fragility of any system of thought, wherein a single occurrence of something believed to be nonexistent disproves the underlying logic and any reasoning that followed.