Jan 152010

If I close my eyes, even momentarily, I can return to any number of journeys through the woods and rewitness a bird’s feather or wispy seed float past, gently buffeted by the breeze. And, as gentle as that journey might appear, the feather has no control over the direction of its travels or its final destination. In the case of a seed, the future of its species might actually be transformed by this journey over which it has no control.

“Feather on the breeze,” is the phrase, Jake, a wonderful friend and English teacher, used to describe life in a note he recently floated into my life. As I have thought about how to live life in the face of Black Swans—the highly improbable, impactful events described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book by the same name—feather on the breeze becomes a wonderful metaphor. And yet (pardon the pun) it flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. In a search of the web, the first blogger I discovered, compared a feather-on-the-breeze-life with one lived largely on a couch with a beer in hand and TV in view. The author spoke of the horrors of allowing the winds of life to determine where we and our seeds are planted. “Take control of your life,” this author demanded as millions of his pixels splashed across my screen. Is it just me, or is the image of a feather gently following the breeze juxtaposed with a couch potato and a beer just too difficult to fathom?

What if all we have is swans? What if highly improbable, impactful events really do define my life? How might I see swans as the winds—be they gentle or tumultuous—upon which my life’s path is hewn? If my most carefully refined plans will ultimately collide with—and be demolished by—the unpredictable, what is the role of planning?

Don’t misunderstand; I know planning is necessary and useful. I just wonder if we too often miss the mystery of life—the “road less traveled.” Our lives are made up of both mystery and mastery. If we are slaves to mastering life through planning, do we risk missing the mystery…what the pianist Michael Jones once called “the path the heart loves to wander”?

I have asked many people about the trajectory of life. I even emailed the December 3 blog to my son, David, webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitor Bureau (QCCVB). “Dad,” he emailed back, “your article reminded me of an interview I did as a student at Augustana with a staff member, Doug, during an extremely brief stint at the Observer newspaper. As a result, Doug offered me a job as a web journalist…and eventually one as student web developer. A year after I graduated, Doug encouraged me to apply for this position. If I hadn’t met Doug during that “fluke” campus activity, I wouldn’t be working at the QCCVB today!” Welcome to the feather on the breeze life, son.

When asked, most people will admit their life landed in a place far removed from where they imagined it would. And if I listen very, very carefully, I often detect a tinge of guilt. “My life is good,” they tell me, but their sub-context is “but I was just so lucky. I benefited from so many flukes. I feel unworthy to take credit for the blessings I have been given.”

So in view of lives directed by the flight of swans, what do I tell my son about how to live the rest of his life? I would be justified—and safe—if I were to pass along any number of well-worn pronouncements. “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” “People who write down their goals are more successful then those who don’t.” “If we fail to study history we are doomed to repeat it.” These, and thousands of others, are backed by data that appears to prove their validity. Yet I wonder.

These pieces of advice rely on well-worn skills. Describe the present state, create a vision of the future and then identify the gap that emerges. Follow that with plans and endless “to-dos” lists you can dutifully check off on the journey from today into the future. What we cannot take into account is that swans—be they black and horrific or white and joyous—have the irritating habit of showing up, making all the analysis and planning obsolete and sending us back to square one.

What then do we do—what alternate skills might we employ—to live in a world in which a swan’s flight path might well collide with ours at any moment. I can think of three. The first is to review where we have been, not as a detailed study of the events of the past, but in deep reflection. What has life taught me about who I am and what it means to be human. The second is the ability to “be” more and “do” less—we are, after all, as many have reminded me, human beings, not human doings. The last is the ability, desire and willingness to dream. As Dee Hock, Chairman Emeritus of Visa, has written, “At times such as these, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream…the failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realize.” Perhaps a future blog will afford me an opportunity to think more about these skills.

One final story. I have struggled with these words—sat for hours trying to find the perfect metaphor. This morning I grabbed at random one of nearly 50 notes I received on the last Snowball weekend. It was Jake’s kind and generous note that ended up between my thumb and index finger. In that moment the winds of life had shown me the direction forward. I only needed to allow the words to appear over the horizon. And I arrived here without a beer, couch or television!

Dec 032009

If I am open to ways in which every aspect of life intertwines with, and informs the other—I am often gifted with insights that cause me to rethink deeply-held assumptions. It is as if life hands me lessons one day I will surely need the next.

One recent Sunday, Judi and I were in Chicago and wandered into a bookstore—my idea of nirvana! Since I had only a few pages remaining in the work I was enjoying, I wanted another to accompany me on the train home that afternoon.The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, showed up prominently after its publication in 2007, and while tempted—I perused it many times—I always resisted adding it to my library. That morning, however, it ruffled its feathers on the shelf of “staff recommendations” and I gave up. “You win” I said in resignation and followed it to the cashier.

As with any good and reliable friend, this one put its arm gently around my shoulder, pointed out at the world and asked “If you look from this perspective, doesn’t much of life appear surprisingly different?”The author’s ideas so destabilized the earth beneath me that I began to see almost everything in a new light.

Taleb’s key message, as I read his work, is that we are misled when taught that Gaussian distributions—the normal or bell curve—capture the majority of life’s randomness. The normal distribution of human height and weight gets translated into financial tools such as beta—the risk assigned to an individual stock—or the theory of random walks, which purportedly explains the movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. We are trained to see these derivative statistical tools as primary descriptors of variation.

How then to categorize, understand or learn from the market crash of October 19, 1987…S&L crisis during the 1980s and 90s… dot-com collapse that began in March, 2000…Wall Street turmoil after 9/11…or current global economic crisis we may or may not have overcome? When we use Gaussian tools to describe the world, we are forced to call these unexpected events “outliers” and dismiss them as unimportant, improbable flukes. And yet, they account for a large portion of the variability my portfolio has confronted since the day I inserted the first dollar into my retirement account.

What Taleb asks me to consider is that black swans—those highly improbable, impactful events—impose the majority of randomness in our lives, and we pass them off as minimally important “outliers” at great peril.

I was reminded of Taleb’s ideas during a recent conversation. A friend, who found himself destitute in this virulent economy, described a successful business venture early in life. “I made a great deal of money, but it was just such a fluke!” It may have been an improbable, unpredictable series of events, but to this day it remains an important chapter in his life—one that enabled much of the rest.

How many of us, when recounting our journey from birth to this very moment, are forced to recount multiple improbable, unpredictable events—chance encounters or overheard conversations—that reveal the truth of our story?

When tempted to think otherwise, I recall a morning in 1979 after I arrived in Boston to begin my MBA. As I entered the MIT post office, I held the door for a young woman. Later, after she became Judi Breisch, she admitted she thought the gesture was sweet. That seemingly unimportant moment—and that young woman—made this moment, and most in between, possible.

If life is inherently unpredictable—if I cannot count on life’s momentary stability to help me see the road ahead—how do I move into the very next moment? I would suggest that perhaps life will gift me with such insight—but that would be just such a fluke. But stay tuned!