Last week was Thanksgiving Day in the US. Most Americans celebrate this day with a feast that has a stuffed turkey as the centerpiece. While watching the turkey be carved, I couldn’t help but think of turkeys and Black Swans. What does a Black Swan have to do with a turkey? The Black Swan is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
.* It refers to, as Wikipedia says, “a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations
”. In his book Taleb uses the turkey as a Black Swan example. For 20 to 28 weeks domestic turkeys have a very predictable life. They have all the food they could possibly eat, a place to live and no worries of possible predators. Each day is the same as the last: predicable, comfortable, the same. Then one day, out of the blue with no forewarning, the turkey is now the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal. The Black Swan has made its appearance. For the turkey, it was an unpredictable event that had a very large impact – death.
While death is hardly rare event, in most cases it is extremely hard to predict and has a huge impact both for the person who dies and for those around him or her. As such, most of us live our lives as if we are immortal and don’t give much thought to death. As a non-theist, I don’t believe in heaven or hell. Death is the end, yet in a sense, we are immortal. Our body will decompose and eventually our very atoms will be reused and distributed in other plants and animals. Our DNA, our genetic structure, will continue in our offspring. While we will eventually be forgotten, we have influenced the course of events by how we raised our children, what we taught, how we acted, what impact we had on other people and, of course, genetically. That impact can be positive or negative, but there will be an impact, however small. At this time of year it can be beneficial to think about that impact.
It has been said that a man’s life is remembered by his story. What is your story? Who will people say you are? Other than your DNA, what impact are you going to have in the world? Will most people give a sigh of relief that you are gone? Or will they mourn your parting? In other words: Who are you and how do people view you? Think about it and remember the Black Swan and the turkey.
*I hesitate to recommend this book. There are some very good concepts in the book and the Black Swan is something to think about (it is much broader than death), although I have no idea how you would prepare for a hard-to-predict and rare event other than to realize they do occur. Also, you have to get past the author’s arrogance which comes across on many pages and which put me off on more than one occasion.