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The Black Elephant in the Room

The Black Elephant in the Room


That unexpected event, which upends all the plans you had and turns your life – or everyone’s – upside down. An apparent surprise, but which, once the event has happened, is rationalized, making it seem predictable and giving the impression that it was expected to happen. Weirdness, extreme impact and the ability to understand in retrospect are the three defining features. There are many examples, such as World War I or the 1918 flu.

The concept refers to the fact that it was thought it impossible to see a black swan, until one day, the first one was found. It was popularized by the Lebanese economist and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2007, who with his work “The Black Swan” -translated into more than 30 languages- got the timing right, since in a certain way, he predicted the Lehman Brothers crisis and how it was going to submerge the world economy into chaos in the following years. Then came the film by Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman playing the dancer.

There is debate about the pandemic we are living through: Taleb himself recognizes that it could be seen as a black swan by some people, although he thinks it is not, since it was quite predictable before it happened. As, for example, Rob Wallace had done in his magnificent essay “Big Farms Make Big Flu” or Bill Gates himself in a TED talk. If it is predictable, the event is considered more like a Gray Rhinoceros, because of its obviousness. The Gray Rhinoceros is something in front of you and coming at you, according to Michele Wucker -the author of the book that popularized the idea-, who warns: “We should look at the three Gray Rhinoceros I always talk about: inequality, climate change and financial products”.

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