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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable | [Nassim Nicholas Taleb]

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Maverick thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb had an illustrious career on Wall Street before turning his focus to his black swan theory. Not all swans are white, and not all events, no matter what the experts think, are predictable. Taleb shows that black swans, like 9/11, cannot be foreseen and have an immeasurable impact on the world.
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Publisher's Summary

Maverick thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb had an illustrious career on Wall Street before turning his focus to his black swan theory. Not all swans are white, and not all events, no matter what the experts think, are predictable. Taleb shows that black swans, like 9/11, cannot be foreseen and have an immeasurable impact on the world.

©2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb; (P)2007 Recorded Books, LLC

What the Critics Say

"[Taleb] administers a severe thrashing to MBA- and Nobel Prize-credentialed experts who make their living from economic forecasting." (Booklist)
"The hubris of predictions - and our perpetual surprise when the not-predicted happens - are themes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's engaging new book....It concerns the occurrence of the improbable, the power of rare events and the author's lament that 'in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it.'" (The New York Times)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 10-22-13
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 10-22-13 Member Since 2014

    Letting the rest of the world go by

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Even better today (2013)"

    The author says he's a mathematician philosopher trader and if you tend towards that mode of thinking as I do this book will forever change your world view.

    The book was written a year before the financial crisis of 2008 and really predicts that kind of event completely. His bottom line is that most of what we model (all financial products, for example) does not follow a normal distribution and extreme events which lie outside of the model will happen much more frequently than the mathematics would predict.

    He tells you up front that he's going to pick and choose philosophers, economist and mathematicians who agree with his thesis. He's up front about the fact that the only modern philosopher worth knowing is Karl Popper and he explains why.

    I don't understand why other reviewers don't love this book as much as do. Perhaps, because they read it before 2008 and didn't get the benefit of hindsight like I have.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Robert Houston, TX, United States 10-11-13
    Robert Houston, TX, United States 10-11-13 Member Since 2012
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    "Self-indulgent and not very interesting"

    This book is written by an author who comes across as very self-satisfied and a jerk to boot. Not worth spending 14+ hours with his thoughts.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    John Menlo Park, CA, United States 07-14-12
    John Menlo Park, CA, United States 07-14-12 Member Since 2007
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    "You're Smarter Than Everyone Else . . . we get it."

    Some interesting material overall, as might be presented by the most tedious professor you can imagine. Ironically, the best review of the work (and author) is quoted in the text by the author's mother----paraphrasing----her secret to success: to figure out a way to buy [the author's] actual value to the world and turn around and sell it for his self-perceived value to the world. Ouch.

    Maybe that's why the author feels it is so important to continually reference his own brilliance.

    Good riddance Taleb . . . I won't be reading you again.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 10-16-11
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 10-16-11 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

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    "Provocative book, self-involved author"

    In this book, Taleb launches a gleeful assault against statistical thinking and forecasting. The title refers to the discovery of black swans in Australia, an event which fell outside the bounds of what past experience had led people to expect, since swans everywhere else were white. According to Taleb, many, if not most, important occurrences in human history have been black swan events. Examples he gives include the First World War (which no one expected to grind on for four years at the cost of millions of lives), 9/11, the rise of the Internet, and the runaway success of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Yet, he observes, the human mind has a dangerous tendency to construct narratives in hindsight, which ???explain??? away chance and the unexpected, creating a false sense of predictability. Like a turkey before Thanksgiving, which is lulled into thinking that a history of being well-fed and well-treated is indicative of things to come, we not only don???t know what???s around the corner, but we forget all the previous times when we didn???t know.

    It???s a thesis that Taleb, a former financial trader who grew up in war-torn Lebanon, seems to have had many occasions to ponder. To explore the problem of inductive reasoning, he divides the world into ???Mediocristan??? and ???Extremistan???. In the former, events conform to a statistical bell curve, and outliers have little effect on the whole (as with human height). There may be uncertainty, but it can be accounted for. In the latter, the bell curve model breaks down and outliers have a huge effect (as with human wealth) -- which takes us into a realm better understood through chaos theory and fractals. Taleb spends most of the book attacking the various sciences that (in his mind) make the mistake of applying clean Mediocristan laboratory models to unpredictable Extremistan. Academics, economists, and social scientists receive special scorn.

    There's no question that The Black Swan's central idea is a provocative one, since it inverts the commonplace question of what human knowledge can tell us, and focuses instead on what it can't. As it did for me, it may get you to think.

    However, once you get past the brilliance of that switch in thinking, the actual content is a little thin. For one thing, the author???s egotistical personality is a bit of a distraction from his subject matter, as he goes out of his way to call attention to his own success and take cheap shots at rivals (and, inexplicably, the French). For another, there are clearly circumstances in which those in the know managed to predict a happening well in advance. For example, plenty of savvy people anticipated the eventual popularity of the Internet, back when it was just a text-based plaything of geeks -- it just took home computing and the data infrastructure a couple decades to catch up with that vision. Taleb could have gone into more depth on how to tell the difference between reasonable predictions and those too easily derailed by black swans.

    In sum, probably not the most substantial book on unpredictability, but one that does put the issue into a good meme.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ed POINT COOK, Australia 10-30-10
    Ed POINT COOK, Australia 10-30-10 Member Since 2010
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    "Not as straight forward as I initially thought"

    It took me a couple of runs through this audio book to really understand the framework that Nassim was putting together. First, by dividing the everyday from the extreme, understanding how scalable vs non-scalable events might allow us to increase our encounter with the black swan event. Second, understanding how our own minds will distort or prevent us from being able to see black swans. The author provides guidance on how we might shift our internal belief paradigm so that we might become more conducive to black swan events and to stop trusting the common as it might be the one thing holding us back from making it to extremistan.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Swad 03-24-10
    Swad 03-24-10

    swadmeister

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    "Excellent"

    I read Fooled by Randomness and this one back-to-back. Taleb is probably one of the most intelligent writers I've ever encountered. I highly recommend both books to anyone who thinks they can predict anything with any degree of accuracy.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Robert des plaines, IL, United States 03-17-10
    Robert des plaines, IL, United States 03-17-10
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    "Like the message, not the messenger"

    I found it more than ironic that the author's arguments against the mainstream's hubris were themselves dripping with hubris. Despite completely agreeing with the author, I found it hard to concentrate on his points and examples.

    The second half is much better focusing on the real meat of the issue and offering more insight to the world today. More practical people will complain that he provides no strategy for using/avoiding Black Swans. He does provide advice for avoiding Black Swans - Expect Them. The rest is more like a Self-Help book. Be willing to take a risk and be wary of anything that is described as a "sure thing" or "completely safe".

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kirill Owings Mills, MD, USA 03-29-09
    Kirill Owings Mills, MD, USA 03-29-09
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    "A smart book for those interested in probability"

    I enjoyed listening to this book. First, it's well-written, so you do not have to struggle with either scientific language or feel like you're being talked to like a dummy. Second, the material presented in this book will help you rethink a lot that is going on around us. Sometimes, Mr. Taleb gets too passionate about his subject and goes into great lengths to explain a simple topic, but still he possesses a great knowledge. This book is a must-read for any starting (or experienced) investor! The ideas of Nicholas Taleb might save you a couple of bucks in the future.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David New York, NY, USA 10-13-07
    David New York, NY, USA 10-13-07 Member Since 2007
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    "A Pretentious Bore"

    I found this book to be thuddingly dull and obtuse. I kept listening (I'm new to Audible) for the great thought to emerge to justify all the stultifying time I had spent listening so far. I gave up after Chapter 6. Had I the book on paper, I would have been able to skim it, see that there was nothing there and save myself the time.

    The premise is that there are things that are unpredictable that in retrospect seem inevitable. Think 9/11. That past experince can't account for future events. But after hours of listening to Taleb telling us how much smarter he is than the rest of us -- without giving us a clue how to apply any of his "insights," I became convinced that there is no way to benefit from this book: If you learn how to figure things out and anticipate them, they won't be unpredictable anymore, will they? And since the premise of the book is .... Well, you get it.

    How does a book like this one get on so many recommended lists? Must be a Black Swan.

    60 of 81 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Paper St. Soap 12-14-07
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    "Few gems in this diatribe"

    I almost gave up on this one until I found out I could increase the playback speed on my iphone and cut the listening time by a few hours...good move...it also made the annoying narrator sound less annoying.

    There are a few interesting tidbits in the book, but it was anywhere from boring to painful to get to those points. Overall I would mirror the thoughts of the other reviewers. What was most annoying to me is that Taleb falls prey to the fallacies he blasts, most notably the narrative fallacy.

    I would say 2.5 stars, but rounded that up to 3 because I did take a few things away from this listen.

    10 of 13 people found this review helpful

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