[I'm finally reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and I just read such a surreal and beautiful passage. It's just... wow. I said in my first post in this blog that I don't believe poker itself is a Black Swan dependent endeavor, but I'm beginning to think The Great Internet Poker Boom was a Black Swan event. Anyway, the following passage will make sense when you know that Yevgenia is a fictional character from the book who achieved success through a positive Black Swan event. Il Deserto (The Tartar Steppe) is a real book however.]
Yevgenia encountered // deserto when she was thirteen, in her parents'
weekend country house in a small village two hundred kilometers outside
Paris, where their Russian and French books multiplied without the constraints
of the overfed Parisian apartment. She was so bored in the country
that she could not even read. Then, one afternoon, she opened the
book and was sucked into it.
Inebriated by Hope
Giovanni Drogo is a man of promise. He has just graduated from the military
academy with the rank of junior officer, and active life is just starting.
But things do not turn out as planned: his initial four-year assignment
is a remote outpost, the Bastiani fortress, protecting the nation from the
Tartars likely to invade from the border desert—not too desirable a position.
The fortress is located a few days by horseback from the town; there
is nothing but bareness around it—none of the social buzz that a man of
his age could look forward to. Drogo thinks that his assignment in the
outpost is temporary, a way for him to pay his dues before more appealing
positions present themselves. Later, back in town, in his impeccably
ironed uniform and with his athletic figure, few ladies will be able to resist
What is Drogo to do in this hole? He discovers a loophole, a way to be
transferred after only four months. He decides to use the loophole.
At the very last minute, however, Drogo takes a glance at the desert
from the window of the medical office and decides to extend his stay.
Something in the walls of the fort and the silent landscape ensnares him.
The appeal of the fort and waiting for the attackers, the big battle with the
ferocious Tartars, gradually become his only reason to exist. The entire atmosphere
of the fort is one of anticipation. The other men spend their time
looking at the horizon and awaiting the big event of the enemy attack.
They are so focused that, on rare occasions, they can detect the most insignificant
stray animal that appears at the edge of the desert and mistake
it for an enemy attack.
Sure enough, Drogo spends the rest of his life extending his stay, delaying
the beginning of his life in the city—thirty-five years of pure hope,
spent in the grip of the idea that one day, from the remote hills that no
human has ever crossed, the attackers will eventually emerge and help him
rise to the occasion.
At the end of the novel we see Drogo dying in a roadside inn as the
event for which he has waited all his life takes place. He has missed it.
The Sweet Trap of Anticipation
Yevgenia read // deserto numerous times; she even learned Italian (and
perhaps married an Italian) so she could read it in the original. Yet she
never had the heart to reread the painful ending.
I presented the Black Swan as the outlier, the important event that is
not expected to happen. But consider the opposite: the unexpected event
that you very badly want to happen. Drogo is obsessed and blinded by the
possibility of an unlikely event; that rare occurrence is his raison d'être. At
thirteen, when she encountered the book, little did Yevgenia know that
she would spend an entire life playing Giovanni Drogo in the antechamber
of hope, waiting for the big event, sacrificing for it, and refusing intermediate
steps, the consolation prizes.
She did not mind the sweet trap of anticipation: to her it was a life
worth living; it was worth living in the cathartic simplicity of a single pur-
pose. Indeed, "be careful what you wish for": she may have been happier
before the Black Swan of her success than after.
One of the attributes of a Black Swan is an asymmetry in
consequences—either positive or negative. For Drogo the consequences
were thirty-five years spent waiting in the antechamber of hope for just a
few randomly distributed hours of glory—which he ended up missing.
When You Need the Bastiani Fortress
Note that there was no brother-in-law around in Drogo's social network.
He was lucky to have companions in his mission. He was a member of a
community at the gate of the desert intently looking together at the horizon.
Drogo had the advantage of an association with peers and the avoidance
of social contact with others outside the community. We are local
animals, interested in our immediate neighborhood—even if people far
away consider us total idiots. Those homo sapiens are abstract and remote
and we do not care about them because we do not run into them in elevators
or make eye contact with them. Our shallowness can sometimes work
It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need
them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed,
we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything
extraordinary without such peer validation—but we have the freedom to
choose our peers. If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of
thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside
the school. You hear about the Stoics, the Academic Skeptics, the
Cynics, the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, the Essenes, the Surrealists, the Dadaists,
the anarchists, the hippies, the fundamentalists. A school allows someone
with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company
and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group
can be ostracized together—which is better than being ostracized alone.
If you engage in a Black Swan-dependent activity, it is better to be part
of a group.