What Black Swans have to do with Asbestos Removal

by ikecube. 1 Comment

I see many examples of today’s long-term unemployed who became that way by not understanding the extent they create value (or don’t) for their organization, and by not preparing themselves for the future.

Basically, they took for granted that a particular job would always exist for someone with their (current at-the-time) skill-sets, and perceived their employee-employer relationship as if it were a closed-loop system without any other outside influences/variables. Quite a dangerous assumption – to only focus on what they knew that they knew. They didn’t even bother to ask what they knew that they didn’t know. Those people who take the time to understand what it is that they don’t know, stand a better chance to survive an industry or economic shift away from their core-competency. The best prepared will also attempt to minimize the range of the things they don’t know that they don’t know.

An over-simplified example is that of a manual-laborer that is presently and gainfully employed working in asbestos removal in a narrow region of the United States. There are three ways that this person will manage their career:

Focusing on what you know that you know: A person with complacent, presumptuous, and soon-to-be-unemployed temperament will just continue doing that job day in and day out oblivious to the fact that no ‘new’ asbestos problems are being created and that some day, the value of running an asbestos removal business will decline below what is an economically viable standard of living.

Keeping on eye on what you know that you don’t know: People who manage their career with an open mind are constantly filling in the gaps that they’ve discovered in themselves. In the example of the asbestos-remover, he will identify ways to extend the life of his job by specializing in certain types of asbestos removal, learning to use certain equipment, and perhaps expanding learning skills that open up work opportunities in adjacent industries (debris clean up/removal). These persons hedge their career bets by generalizing to some degree unlike the people in above who tend to specialize very narrowly.

The most economically protected people are aware that there are things they don’t know that they don’t know (Nicholas Taleb calls these ‘Black Swans’), and they proactively attempt to minimize the likelihood that events that fall in this bucket don’t arrest their career. Usually this takes the form of additional hedging, but for it to be effective hedging, it must be wholly outside and unrelated to the current value-stream of activities used currently. The asbestos remover might want to consider a side-career in something outside of toxic materials removal/transportation/storage.

We can see that at a minimum, it is necessary to reduce the number of known-unknowns and fill in gaps in our skill sets as we identify those that are/will be necessary for the future of creating value for the organizations we work for. This is the minimum that one must do. This take the form of expanding in the same topic area as one is currently employed. A marketer will educate themselves about new trends in marketing, social media, marketing automation, etc. A software engineer will learn other software languages, platforms, and new programming paradigms (object-oriented versus procedural, etc.). A automobile mechanic will branch out from the makes/models he/she knows and learn the systems of others, or even move into locomotives, tractors, etc.

The best one can do is be ever-expanding the range of knowledge and skills that are available to put to use to create value (read: "a job"). This is hedging against Black-Swans, or "unknown-unknowns". Although it is no guarantee, an out-of-work taxi-cab driver might find that they are a pretty good florist and can make a viable living doing so because they had cultivated an alternative skill set during their cab driving career.

Understanding and analyzing the reasons that people fail to properly hedge their career bets is a much bigger can of worms that ultimately leads back to culture and values, but problems defined at that level aren’t as actionable and don’t usually have ‘correct’ answer.

Some footnotes:

  • The concept of the “Black Swan” is much broader than I describe here, and the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb covers this in detail in his books “Fooled by Randomness” and “Black Swan”. The image for this post is the book cover.
  • “unkown unknowns” are a becoming a concept more talked about in recent times, probably starting with Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote concerning the matter.
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    1.     There
    is one who knows not, but knows not, that he knows not. He is a fool—avoid

    2.     There
    is one who knows not, and knows that he knows not: he is a student—teach him.

    3.     There
    is one who knows, but knows not that he knows. He is asleep—wake him.

    4.     There
    is one who knows, and knows that he knows. He is master—follow him.

    {The aforementioned pronouns may be modified to
    accept the feminine gender.}