How 'Black Swan Events' Change Our Lives — For Good And Bad

These random events are the direct cause of our triumphs and troubles. How to stack the odds in your favor.

Black swan events changing out lives for the good and bad Asier Romero | Shutterstock

The talented sperm I came from beat a hundred million other sperm in the race to fertilize my mother’s egg. That makes me a unique one-in-a-hundred-million man. You are equally unique. I was born to a happily married couple in the USA as a white, middle-class male. I’m genetically healthy and mentally sound. Like you, I’ve had my ups and downs, yet I’ve learned I can take zero credit for my existential fortunes and failures. Zero. Everything good and bad happens to me, not because of me. The same goes for you.


Think about it: we didn’t choose our parents, birthplace, or genetics. We had no input on where we grew up or who gave us our education. We couldn’t have predicted the cancer that grew quietly as it spread to our bones. Likewise, we couldn’t ignore the teacher who showed us the magnificence of the arts and sciences that inspired passion in our careers. The path of our lives directly results from a series of random events we can neither predict nor control. These life-changing moments are called “Black Swan Events.”

What are Black Swan Events?

Did a teacher or a boss inspire you? Were you introduced to someone who “knew a guy” who then helped you? Did a professional stumble across your work and reach out? Did a friend say, “Hey let’s…” and you did?”


The course of your life followed a meandering trail because of a series of unexpected and highly improbable surprises. That’s a fact. A “Black Swan event” is a rare, unpredictable, random occurrence, that profoundly changes the course of your life.

@buckhorncliffs Understanding Black Swan Events: Navigating the Unpredictable A Black Swan event is an unpredictable occurrence with potentially severe consequences. Historical examples include the September 11th attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. By nature, predicting a Black Swan event is a challenge due to its inherent unpredictability. However, we can speculate on potential future risks: Cybersecurity Concerns: Our world is increasingly digital. The threat of a major cyberattack is a growing concern, with potential to disrupt global systems. Geopolitical Tensions: Signs of conflict among major world powers are emerging, posing a risk of unexpected global crises. Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI promises to reshape our future, but managing its impact and ensuring control remains a significant unknown. Financial Bubbles: Speculation and economic uncertainty are on the rise, potentially leading to impactful financial crises. Political Polarization and Government Control: Increasing government control and political divisions offer lessons from history on the potential for unrest. What potential Black Swan events concern you the most? How are you preparing or mitigating these risks?#BlackSwanEvent #RiskManagement #FutureTrends #Cybersecurity #AI #Geopolitics #EconomicRisks #SocialMediaDiscussion ♬ original sound - Rob Benson

Consider some of my Black Swan events:

  • I went to the same college as my brother. During breaks, I hung out with him in the print shop, and he showed me how to run the equipment. I took a job there.
  • After college, an acquaintance needed help in his dad’s print shop and knew I was trained, so he called and hired me out of the blue.
  • I quit and opened my own print shop because I got mad at my friend’s dad.

My brother, my acquaintance, and his evil father are responsible for my career "choice," my independence, and the business skills I learned running my own company. If I had attended a different college, I might be an accountant — I was good at math. If my brother worked at the school newspaper I might have become a journalist. If that guy’s dad had been kinder, I might never have lit the fire in my belly. Neither good nor bad, these and other Black Swan events batted me down the pathways of life like a pinball game. Pause now, and take a moment to consider your Black Swans. Which ones shaped your life?


RELATED: 4 Statistics That Will Change Your Entire Life Perspective

Here are my favorite black swan events from my life:

1. How Mexico saved my college career

I came within a hair’s breadth of dropping out of college. I had a good summer job that my boss told me would grow into a position of authority, and I wanted to stick with it. College seemed pointless as I pursued my third rudderless major. I’ll drop out for a while, I said to myself, and finish it up later. My parents were livid.

“Come with me to Mexico,” my friend Mike said. I stared at him blankly. “Study Spanish and Mexican culture. We’ll get college credits…” he smiled a wry grin. “…and beaches and sunshine and cute Mexican girls.”

Hook, line, and sinker, I went to Mexico, learned the language and culture, and made lifelong friends. Four months later, I returned to college energized and excited, and I graduated with a flourish. If Mike hadn’t spoken up at that precise moment, I wouldn’t have landed on that metal stool in the print shop beside my brother and ended up with my own business. Thank you, Mike.


2. Meeting destiny

In my late 20s, I lived in California with a high-school buddy named Dan. We’d grown up in the same neighborhood in Washington State but attended different colleges. We owned a boat and loved to sail in San Francisco Bay. 

“Mind if I invite a friend to go boating with us?” he asked me one day. “Sure,” I said. “Who?” “A girl I knew in college. She’s moved here to get her Master’s Degree and doesn’t know anybody.”

His friend turned out to be a beautiful young lady with a sparkling personality who ultimately became my wife. We celebrated our 33rd anniversary a few weeks ago. Thanks, Dan.

3. Bad luck

Not all Black Swan events cause rainbows and weddings. Many are dark and sinister.


Five close friends got cancer — the nasty kind. Two have already died. Nothing they did caused it, and nothing they could have done would have prevented it. It just happened. Randomly. Car crashes, financial problems, tornadoes, diseases, crime, job loss … you name it. Like locusts, multitudes of unpredictable events descend upon us without warning and meddle in our lives and livelihoods.

I bought a house in 2007. A year later, the bottom dropped out of the market and a job transfer forced me to sell at an enormous loss. It took years of hard work and painful austerity to recover. 

Not my fault.

Two years ago, the vision in my right eye turned to gray fog, and the specialists still can’t get it back to normal. Other times, my back went bad, I tore knee ligaments, gashed and scarred my forehead, and on top of that, I’m experiencing every kind of old-age malady you can think of. These badges of courage follow me everywhere, slow me down, and keep me from activities I love.


Not my fault.

RELATED: 8 Simple Ways To Rid Your Life Of Bad Luck (For Good!)

Here's how to stack the odds in your favor: 

Mathematicians, philosophers, economists, and scientists of all stripes study Black Swan events to understand their probabilities and impact. The fact that they are unpredictable doesn’t mean they can’t be studied, understood, and in some cases, mitigated or influenced.

An acclaimed Wall Street financier and author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (who popularized the term “Black Swan event”), argues in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, that we can “Get even with the Black Swan.” Taleb talks of bell curves, rare-event theories, long tails, and Plato's philosophy, but for those who don’t speak esoterica, I offer two simple math-free strategies.


1. Prepare for negative events

  • Diversify your financial portfolio. The next market crash (and there will be one) will hurt less when your investments are spread among a diverse set of stocks, bonds, and cash equivalents.
  • Build a financial cushion. Even with a diversified portfolio, a Black Swan event (like the 2008 financial crisis) will damage your holdings. Extra financial padding will see you through it.
  • See your doctors regularly, eat well, and take your medications. Your body will respond better to any medical surprise (accidental trauma, disease, cancer diagnosis) when it is finely tuned like a sports car and current on vaccinations.
  • Get off the couch and out of the house. Walking is the best, cheapest, and easiest physical conditioning available. All you need to do is move. Good physical conditioning helps your body and mind cope with bad news and recover faster.

My wife and I walk often. One day, we randomly stumbled upon a group of volunteers caring for the mother and child of a northern elephant seal. We asked if we could help — they said “sure!” — and became volunteers with a purpose. Oh, and we made new friends too.

RELATED: 9 Signs You're Finally Ready To Make Big Changes In Your Life

2. Encourage the arrival of good events

  • Get off the couch and out of the house. Sound familiar? When you get up and get out, you meet people from different backgrounds with different ideas. Ideas blossom into actions that build a brighter future.
  • Learn to say “Yes” and get out of your comfort zone. Open your mind to conversations and experiences outside what you consider ‘normal.’ Volunteer, learn to skydive, go fishing, take a class. When you say “yes,” you can change your future.
  • Take social risks. The opportunity for profound personal change rises when you talk to the homeless man on the corner, dance at a Croatian folk festival, taste lutefisk at a Scandinavian restaurant, or go on a blind date.
  • Reach out to old friends. Friendship is a profound joy, and rekindling a long-lost friendship will lift your spirits for years to come.

I came across an obituary a few years ago. The mother of a friend I hadn’t seen for thirty years had died. I went to her funeral and shared my condolences with my friend. We went out for a beer afterward and we rekindled our friendship. Two years later he asked me to be his best man.


Randomness of Reality

If we rewound our lives, we’d experience random new Black Swan events that would take our lives down different paths through sunbeams and brambles we’ve never seen before.

We might be born in a dusty hut in Syria in the middle of a genocidal war to a single mother with HIV. Many children are, and it’s not their fault. We might be discovered by a casting director in a bar. That was one of Matthew McConaughey’s Black Swans. If it happened to him, it could happen to anyone. We might have learned to fly jumbo jets or mastered the piano, or died of a crippling disease. We could be rich, poor, beautiful, or famous.

But no, we can’t go back, so we play the hand we were dealt. But it does feel good to know we can cheat a little bit and encourage our Black Swans to steer us toward new and exciting adventures. And if they don’t, it’s not your fault.

RELATED: 15 Mysterious Ways The Universe Communicates With You (So Pay Attention!)


Brian Feutz is a writer, columnist at DiscoverWalks, and podcast speaker who writes about topics ranging from retirement, humor, travel, tech, adventure, and fiction.