July 2021

Embracing the Transformation Brought by a Black Swan

By Gerald Stark, PhD, MSEM, CPO/L

We see the signs of COVID-19 loosening all around us. Protocols are relaxing, stores are opening, social events are happening, and people are traveling again. At a personal level, we are experiencing a series of post-COVID firsts. Some are small, such as a first trip to the store without a mask, first in-person meeting, or first sporting event. Some are bigger, like first plane trip or first visit with a loved one. However, we may feel a bit apprehensive as we let down our protective barriers to face a future with naked and maskless faces.

Our sense of liberation and hope is tempered by an uneasy realization that our perceptions have been changed forever. Changed because, young or old, we have less confidence in our own understanding of the world around us. In his 2001 book Fooled by Randomness, economist Nassim Taleb, PhD, describes the metaphor of the “Black Swan Event” to describe a totally unpredictable and unprecedented event. It is derived from an ancient Roman poem indicating a black swan could not exist since none had ever been seen.

The importance of this metaphor, originally applied to financial markets, is that it reveals the fragility of any conclusions or expectations from previous experiences. It also reveals the limitations of analytic distributive statistics that are retrospective in nature and cannot predict the probabilities of rare or unanticipated events.

Taleb also explores the related psychological biases that impede people from assessing risk and uncertainty, as well as the tendency to reconstruct narratives with rationalized cause-and-effect hindsight. We are all left with a sense of helplessness at these Type III errors of “unknown unknowns” that are beyond our predictive qualitative and quantitative models. This sense of risk is further intensified with all too many of us, directly or indirectly, experiencing the loss of a friend or family member.

As we begin to rebuild our models with a higher degree of humility and temperance, we can develop better strategies. We do this with the knowledge that we cannot hope to predict unpredictable events any better, but we can seek more adaptable and robust practices. We can use this experience to develop a confidence that can withstand and adapt to unanticipated conditions, and even exploit the hard-won benefits.

“Our most beautiful dreams are born from our most unpleasant nightmares.”
– Matshona Dhliwayo

We could attempt to shroud ourselves in the nostalgic belief that we can simply return to normalcy by ignoring the events of the past year. However, we would miss out on the deeper opportunity to use this new-found “metanoia,” or transformative thinking, to fundamentally change our philosophy and perspectives.

Most visibly, we have instituted more antiseptic policies and practices for prevention of other communicable diseases. We are more aware of the vulnerability of our social and professional procedures, and we responded to ensure greater epidemiological safety. We are also more conscious of our role and relevancy as front-line clinicians in healthcare to provide movement, mobility, and comfort.

There is a greater confidence we can extend our reach to conduct meetings, consultations, and presentations virtually that would not have been possible before. We have learned to pivot resources for individuals and groups that were underserved. Many organizations are also realizing a greater operational savings and efficiency as the need for travel and facilities are re-evaluated. At a personal level, we may have discovered a higher degree of introspection and balance with friends and family since we are no longer confined to the daily migration to and from the “work warehouses” of our office spaces.

At a deeper level, we may have evolved more robust philosophical models with a greater capacity for uncertainty and risk. The study of Decision Theory has grown from defining “the known,” to becoming more comfortable with measuring the probabilities of “the unknown.” Just as computational algorithms can self-adjust to randomness with artificial intelligence, we can use inductive reasoning to approach indeterminate situations with less anxiety. Quite simply we are not as intimidated by unanticipated events.

With the “test-pressurization” of the COVID-19 pandemic, we observed systems theory at work with the capabilities and limitations of our organizational groups and leaders on full display. We may have been equally impressed and dismayed at how those nested social, professional, local, national, and global organizations responded. We saw firsthand the waves of triumph and failure with actions that affected us personally and collectively with the unintended effects that may linger into the future.

Some argue that COVID-19 was not a true Black Swan because SARS-CoV, and SARS-CoV-2 had been encountered previously. The reaction to COVID-19 was a failure by global policy makers to anticipate future pandemics.

At times we may also have experienced just how alone we are, and how leaders may place their own agendas ahead of others. Perhaps we are a bit shrewder, as we evaluate our information and reformulate our individual goals rather than entrusting these groups with complete confidence. We may choose to lower our own exposure, optimize our advantages, and diversify interests to differentiate our positions.

Finally, Black Swan events help us to examine our inner “counterfactual thinking” or the tendency to create alternatives to events that have already occurred. People naturally construct “what if” scenarios that, in reality, may have had very little impact on the true outcomes. It is our inner voice that asks how we contributed to the present outcome. These are self-critical questions we ask about our own preparedness, vulnerability, or ability to see unanticipated consequences.

In terms of policymaking, counterfactual thinking can help with better decision making by differentiating the concepts of uncertainty and risk resulting in disappointment or regret. We are disappointed by things we had no control over, but we regret that which we could have done differently. However, ruminating and confusing the classic paradox of correlation versus causation can create undue helplessness and blame. Well focused, it can help to examine inconvenient truths and unanticipated multifaceted consequences, both positively and negatively.

Empowered with our new awareness, we can accept the chaos and transformation that innovation provides. We look to a future we could not have predicted or imagined, but with new confidence for the possibilities. As we remove our masks, we can reveal a face that is uniquely adapted for a promising new future.

Gerald Stark, PhD, MSEM, CPO/L, is Senior Clinical Specialist at Ottobock. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists and adjunct faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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