Robin vs. The Black Swan
Aesop, the fabled storyteller, told of a song bird trapped in a cage that hung outside a window. All night long while the other birds slept, he would croon a beautiful but melancholy song. Night after night, a bat listened from afar.
One night, enthralled by the melody, the bat could no longer resist. And so, he came by and clung to the bars of the cage,
“Why do you only sing at night?” asked the Bat. “The glum bird eyed his new found fan and answered. “Once when I was singing in the daytime a fowler attracted by my voice, lured me with acorns and caught me in his net. Ever since, I only sing at night.”
The Bat replied, “What’s the sense of precautions now that you’re a prisoner? If you had sung by night before you were caught, you might still be free.”
Moral of the story? In the words of Rod Stewart, “If I knew then what I know now. Ooh la la.”
It’s easy to blame ourselves for what we didn’t prepare for…what we might have done differently. “If I had only known,” we tell ourselves. If only we had a crystal ball to see what consequences our actions — or inactions — we might have made better choices — and had better outcomes.”
But does better information lead to better decisions? Not always. There are still things we cannot know despite how much we know. The fluke. The unexpected. The unknown unknowns. Those random events that suddenly change everything.
The Black Swans.
The term Black Swan is based on an ancient belief that all Swans are always White. That is until black ones were discovered in Australia. The concept of a Black Swan Event was pioneered by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a risk management professional turned philosopher and author of many seminal books including The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable. According to Taleb: A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with 3 core characteristics. It’s unpredictable. It’s an outlier. And it’s outside the realm of our expectation and imagination.
Black Swans unleash massive impacts that send shock waves throughout the system. 9/11 was a Black Swan. As was the recession of ’08. A typical hurricane is not a Black Swan, but Katrina and Sandy were because of their size, scope and impact. And Covid-19 was — and still definitely is — a Black Swan.
But Black Swans can also be positive. The personal computer was a Black Swan — as were the internet and mobile phones.
While Black Swans are unpredictable, we can build robustness against the negative ones. Avoid the avoidable ones. And optimize the positive ones.
After all — as Taleb says — Black Swan Events also depend on the observer. What may be a Black Swan to a Thanksgiving Day Turkey is not a Black Swan to the butcher.
I’ve encountered numerous Black Swans in my career. Let me tell you about one very memorable one.
Some time ago, my branding agency was contracted by a wonderful client to create a new beauty brand for tweens to be sold in Walmart. Tween girls were our sweet spot. We had previously created a teen brand named Jane that had taken the industry by storm. Not one of our competitors saw Jane coming. And it became an overnight success. A Black Swan of the positive kind. It was scooped up by the Estée Lauder Companies nine months after its launch.
So — as so-called “experts” — we set out to make lightning strike twice. Obviously, we studied the competition. The space was relatively clear. We knew that buy-in from parents and teachers was critical — so we enlisted their support. We knew the sensitivities of speaking to young girls.
We also knew that young girls were maturing faster and as a consequence hitting puberty and skin problems earlier. We wanted to offer an alternative to the cheaply produced and potentially irritating play cosmetics available at the time. We wanted to teach good grooming habits — like washing your face — in a responsible way. We knew that tech-savvy Gen Z craved community and connectivity. We knew they were philanthropic, socially and environmentally conscious.
And so, we created GeoGirl. Wholesome, sheer, age-appropriate, mistake-proof, charitable, beauty products made with gentle, good-for-skin natural ingredients. No harsh chemicals. No synthetic colors or fragrances. The products were poppy in the package and virtually invisible when applied. Tube sizes were scaled down to fit smaller hands. Our planet-friendly packages were made of recyclable materials. We even wrote a theme song that was recorded by an up-and-coming tween vocalist. As innocent as can be.
We thought we nailed this…We were so smart…Perhaps too smart. Or not smart enough.
And then it happened. The Black Swan swooped in.
Out of the blue, the day of our launch party, a right wing news outlet released an on-line headline: Walmart targets EIGHT-year-olds with a new range of ‘anti-aging’ make-up.
And with that all hell broke loose. No one could resist the flap. CNN, Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, even Jay Leno — all weighed in.
Outraged mothers — like the very ones we had spoken to — took shots at what seemed to them like child exploitation. “The sooner they start wearing makeup, the sooner they can get knocked up and come back to Walmart to buy cases or diapers and baby goods,” wrote one mom. Others chimed in. “Thanks to Wal-Mart, little girls can obsess about aging in between recess and spelling”. “It’s a Gateway Drug”. “Anti-Aging’ Ingredients? What’s Next, Botox at 11.”
Like a game of telephone — word of our healthy, natural antioxidant ingredients in our flavored Blueberry Lipgloss were twisted as they were passed along — antioxidants became anti-aging. Our wholesome Balloons, Butterflies and LadyBugs became Botox. In fact, headlines like Walmart sells Botox to 8–year olds appeared and reappeared.
24 hours later, the retailer decided to rethink the project. Within 2 weeks we were told GeoGirl could only “soft” launch. No advertising. No PR. No website. No music videos. No reputation repair. All of which amounted to No sales. Within 6 months, GeoGirl was scrapped as a failure. At great cost to our client.
At that time, social media was relatively new and we totally underestimated its power to ignite a firestorm. We certainly never expected to be cyber-bullied. Today it’s par for the course.
So, what did we learn:
Experience — as it turns out — is not always the best teacher. Knowledge can’t always prepare us. Expertise can cause blindness.
Black Swans can be lurking in the reeds.
We live in unpredictable times. Disruption has always been a constant, but now things happens faster than ever before. So how can we plan for something we can’t envision happening? How can we prepare for the unknown unknown?
It takes the skill of a Robin.
According to Iroquois and Shoshone tribal lore, the white ring around the Red Robin’s eye is symbolic of prophetic vision, clarity, and great wisdom. The Robin would be called upon during ceremonies when clear understanding was needed.
So here are 5 tips from this Robin.
- Don’t give a hoot about expertise
As experts, we treat our knowledge as something sacred — to be tenaciously protected and defended. A way to rise in the pecking order. It’s called confirmation bias. Sticking to those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our beliefs and prove we are right.
We strive to have the right answers — when in fact we should be asking the right questions. The fact is what you don’t know Is often more valuable than what you do know. Embrace the unknown.
2. Don’t be afraid to fly solo
In animal behavior, the definition of flock is a unified group moving as one with the absence of conspiracy. Birds of a feather flock together.
Our instinct is to follow the nearby birds in whatever direction they go. But group think traps us into like-mindedness. Like mindedness can make us a sitting duck. Brands become clones of each other without authentic differentiation.
Spread your wings. Until you do you will have no idea how far your idea can fly. You can’t fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren.
3. Don’t be the Thanksgiving Day Turkey
The Turkey is fed every day. And every feeding confirms the bird’s belief that it will be fed everyday by friendly members of the human race looking out for its best interests.
Until one Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving — when surprise — the Turkey’s feeling of safety is at its max. Just when the risk is highest.
Something has worked in the past, until — well, unexpectedly it doesn’t. It isn’t that we can’t know the future, but that we delude ourselves into thinking we can make forecasts and predictions about events based on past experiences.
Remember — The 7 most dangerous words. In marketing. This is how we’ve always done it. Hindsight is not foresight.
4. Avoid the flap
In the presence of a Black Swan, we often go into panic mode. And behave like a trapped bird flying into walls. Panting wild eyed as we slam into the window — assuming the window is the only way out. By charging full speed at the first, fast solution makes us miss better options. We drop dead searching for freedom.
Instead of narrowing your focus, get a bird’s eye view. And be open to all sorts of possibilities. That’s where great creativity and innovation reside.
5. Finally, when bested by a Black Swan — be like the Blackbird. In the words of Paul McCartney, “Take your broken wings and learn to fly.” Taleb calls this “The Anti-Fragile”. Anti-Fragile is beyond resilience. The resilient — like the famed Phoenix — can resist shocks and rise up from the ashes. But they essentially stay the same.
The Anti-Fragile love randomness. And uncertainty. They actually grow, thrive and flourish when exposed to volatility and stress. The “Anti-Fragile emerge stronger, smarter and better. “You were always waiting for this moment to arise.”
A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking — because her trust is not in the branch but on her own wings.
There will always be chaos and uncertainty. But if you are Anti-Fragile — curious, facile, fierce and free, you can benefit from — and maybe even befriend a Black Swan.
Or you can keep plotting and praying things all goes according to plan. If you choose the latter, brace yourself for the next Black Swan. And hope that it isn’t your Swan Song.