The phrase “black swan” was coined when the black swan was presumed not to exist. The Old World presumption was that all swans must be white because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers. In that context, a black swan was impossible or at least nonexistent.
However, in 1697, Dutch explorers led by Willem de Vlamingh became the first Europeans to see black swans, in Western Australia. The term subsequently metamorphosed to connote the idea that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.
Black swan events were discussed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness, which concerned financial events. His 2007 book The Black Swan extended the metaphor to events outside of financial markets. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as “black swans”—undirected and unpredicted. He gives the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the September 2001 attacks as examples of black swan events. Taleb asserts:
What we call here a Black Swan … is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
As a family lawyer, I have found that for some persons divorce is particularly difficult, because, for them, it is a black swan. For these folks, they presumed their life was stable, that divorce wouldn’t happen as there were no facts that would suggest this was possible.
The practical aim of Taleb’s books are not to attempt to predict events which are unpredictable, but to build robustness against negative events while still exploiting positive events.
I process this by contending that we should not take our relationships for granted. We never know when a black swan will appear to challenge our expectations.1