Have you heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb? He’s the author of Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Well, he’s a self-described renegade ‘philosopher of uncertainty’ who has set his sights on destroying the bell curve. It turns, out, that the familiar bell curve, which incidentally graced the ten Deutsche Marks bill along with a picture of its originator, Carl Friedrich Gauss, is a deceptive fraud. It focusses our attention on the normal distribution of events, whether the weather, earthquakes, or stock market prices. The ‘hump’ on the bell curve represents the normal distribution of events, the events that are likely. Well, Taleb argues that the unlikely events, represented by the ‘tails’ on the left and right side of the bell curve, is what actually shapes our lives. Who cares if there are no earthquakes for 50 years?–when the earthquake hits, it alters lives. Who cares if the stock market goes up for 10 years?–it’s when it collapses in the 11th year that wrecks folks’ retirement dreams. And so on.
It was in 2007 when I first ran into Taleb’s books. Fooled By Randomness and then The Black Swan. I was living in Providence, RI at the time, and they had a big Borders bookstore in Providence Place Mall (remember those days?). Fooled By Randomness was in the economics section, and, since I was looking for something to read that wasn’t related to my MA thesis, I picked it up. Well, it was a life changing book. After I read it, it occurred to me that you could devise a whole theory of tragedy (that was what I was trying to do) looking at tragedy as a sort of ‘risk theatre’ where the unexpected rules over heroes’ lives. The unexpected outcome, like Euripides likes to mention in the closing riposte of many of his plays, dominates our lives. The heroes make their plans looking at the hump on the bell curve. But they aren’t looking for the tail event to happen. They’re caught off guard and perish. Well, I spent the next ten years connecting this idea to the art form of tragedy. If it’s one lesson I learned, it is that, to come up with something worth pursuing, read outside of your chosen field. If you’re reading what everyone else is reading, you’ll likely start from the same standpoint and end up in the same place. But if you’re reading outside of your field, then, sometimes, you can find something different.
Well, now that the manuscript is completed (I was wondering for a long time whether it could be completed), it’s time to start reaching out to get some reactions. It turns out that Taleb now is quite famous, but not quite famous enough that it’s impossible to find his email address. He has a website, which, to my surprise, includes his email address. I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll try reaching out to him.” You know, the interesting thing is he’s always talking about black swan events, but he’s never talked about the art form of tragedy, which I’m convinced now is a dramatization of black swan events. The black swan problem is a problem of induction. You can see a thousand white swans over the course of a thousand years and safely declare that there are no black swans. But inductive logic is very fragile. You just need to see one black swan (as they did in Australia), and all your thousands of years of thinking you’re right goes into the wastebasket. Another bird, the turkey also has a problem of induction: it thinks the farmer is a friend because every day the farmer brings food. But come Thanksgiving, things change, and it’s this change that has a big effect on the turkey’s life. So, back to the email: I decided I’ll write Taleb, thank him, and ask him what he thinks about my tragedy as ‘risk theatre’. Here’s what I wrote:
Hi Mr. Taleb,I’ve been inspired by your books and wanted to share my story with you. It was in 2007 that I first came across The Black Swan in a Borders Bookstore in Providence, RI where I was finishing a MA at Brown University on ancient Greek tragedy. After reading it, I began to see the tragic theatre as a place which dramatized the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane hill is a low-probability event. But when it happens, it has high-consequences. Or take Oedipus from Sophocles’ play. The chances that the oracle is right (he will marry his mother and kill his father) is a low-probability event: he has taken every safeguard to ensure it won’t happen. But when it does happen, it has high-consequences. Have you ever thought of tragic theatre as being a place where heroes take risks, and, as a result, are susceptible to ruin?I did. I’ve spent the last ten years working on a new theory or tragedy called “risk theatre.” Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. My theory posits that, in the tragic theatre, heroes are gamblers. They have skin in the game and leverage themselves 100:1, thereby exposing themselves to tail risk. So, although heroes are smarter, stronger, and devise the best-laid plans, the unexpected ruins them. I argue that the tragic theatre is a school for risk because it shows how, the more confident we are, the more we’re in danger. In today’s age where we are surrounded by GMOs, artificial intelligence, and mutual assured destruction ideologies, we can learn a thing or two about risk (mis-)management from ancient theatre.I recently finished my book: Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and now I’m shopping for a publisher. I’m writing first of all, to thank you for your inspiring books, and second of all, to ask for your reaction on the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk.Sincerely,Edwin Wong.