A Metaphor for Our Times

If the nobody-could-have-seen-it-coming black swan metaphor was the narrative of the 2008 market meltdown, author and strategist Michele Wucker’s highly probable, obvious “gray rhino” metaphor tells the story of the crisis we are in today. 

Amid the double calamities of the COVID-19 pandemic and market meltdown, both of which followed repeated public warnings that went ignored, the gray rhino has struck a chord and generated a flood of headlines around the world.  

Cover of New Model Advisor Magazine -a rhino's horn in front of a cracked wall with headline "The Signs Were There"

Crisis Response Journal recently called the gray rhino “A metaphor for our times.” The UK financial magazine, New Model Advisor, made the gray rhino the cover story of its new issue, relegating the black swan to a sidebar.

Nassim Taleb, who coined the term “black swan” for highly improbable and unforeseeable events, has declared on twitter and in multiple interviews, including on Bloomberg News, that the combined pandemic and financial crisis was and is not a black swan. It was neither unforeseeable nor even improbable.

Michele coined the term “gray rhino” to draw attention to the obvious risks that are neglected despite – indeed, often because of– their size and likelihood. The gray rhino metaphor has moved markets, shaped financial policies, and made headlines around the world. She introduced it at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2013, and developed a five-stage analytical framework in her 2016 book, THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world and influenced China’s financial risk strategy

Michele’s recent Washington Post op-ed challenged the tired black swan trope that has given portfolio managers and policy makers a convenient “nobody saw it coming” cop-out when they ignore obvious dangers: “Let’s trade the black swan for the gray rhino: a mind-set that holds ourselves and our government accountable for heeding warnings and acting when we still have a chance to change the course of events for the better instead of waiting for a crisis to act.”  The Wall Street Journal quoted her Washington Post article, offering the gray rhino as an alternative to the black swan. 

Axios, Fast Company, and The Economist’s The World Ahead podcast have adopted the gray metaphor to describe this crisis. The term also has made pandemic and financial collapse related headlines in Australia, China and Taiwan (too many articles to link), Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Middle East, South Africa, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Czech Republic, Chile, Venezuela, Canada, and Mexico.

The black swan has been misused to normalize complacency. By contrast, the gray rhino provides an alternative that challenges decision makers to be held accountable for failing to prepare for and head off clear and present dangers.

It provides not only a new way to think about the twin pandemic and financial crises, but also a framework for how we can do a better job holding decision makers accountable when they fail to keep threats from turning into catastrophes. As Crisis Response Journal put it, the gray rhino is indeed a metaphor for our times.

The Economist’s The World Ahead podcast

The Economist magazine’s Tom Standage interviewed Michele Wucker on The World Ahead podcast posted Monday, March 30, 2020. In the episode, focused on Covid-19 and the perils of prediction, they talked about her gray rhino theory and how it applies to the pandemic and economic crises. You can listen HERE.

Washington Post: No, the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t an ‘unforeseen problem’

The Washington Post published an op-ed by Michele Wucker, “No, the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t an ‘unforeseen problem’,” published on March 17, 2020.

“An obsession with the “unforeseeable” black swan metaphor has promoted a mentality that led us straight into the mess we’re in now: a sense of helplessness in the face of daunting threats and a sucker’s mentality that encourages people to keep throwing good money after bad. And the facile willingness to see crises as black swans has provided policymakers cover for failing to act in the face of clear and present dangers from climate change to health care to economic insecurity. This accountability vacuum has pervaded U.S. policy on financial risk and on the pandemic,” she wrote, calling for readers to use the coronavirus crisis as a catalyst for adopting a more pro-active response to the obvious risks we tend to ignore. “Let’s trade the black swan for the gray rhino: a mind-set that holds ourselves and our government accountable for heeding warnings and acting when we still have a chance to change the course of events for the better instead of waiting for a crisis to act,” she wrote. Read the full article HERE.

Ben Zimmer of The Wall Street Journal quoted the Washington Post piece in an article published March 19, 2020 online and in print in the Weekend edition: ‘Black Swan’: A Rare Disaster, Not as Rare as Once Believed [paywall], noting her challenge to the black swan trope –for unknowable, unforeseeable events– which became popular during the last financial crisis.

TED Talk: Why We Ignore Obvious Problems -and How to Act on Them

Why do we often neglect big problems, like the financial crisis and climate change, until it’s too late? Policy strategist Michele Wucker urges us to replace the myth of the “black swan” — that rare, unforeseeable, unavoidable catastrophe — with the reality of the “gray rhino,” the preventable danger that we choose to ignore. In this TED Talk, she shows why predictable crises catch us by surprise — and lays out some signs that there may be a charging rhino in your life right now. This talk was presented at an official TED conference February 1, 2019, and was featured by editors on the TED.com home page as a Talk of the Day May 1, 2019.

Author Julia Alvarez Shouts Out WHY THE COCKS FIGHT in the NY Times

The author of “IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES” and other beloved novels recommends WHY THE COCKS FIGHT: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola, alongside other classic works on the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in The New York Times“By the Books” column April 11, 2019:

What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about the Dominican Republic?

I always find novels a great way to understand the character, not just the content, of a culture. Dominican-American novelists who write about the island, not just the immigration experience: Junot Díaz, Nelly Rosario, Angie Cruz. Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat” owes much to the riveting nonfiction account by Bernard Diederich, “Trujillo: The Death of the Goat.” Crassweller’s “Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator.” But how can we write about the Dominican Republic and not include Haiti? We are one island, after all, sharing a history of occupation, appropriation, slavery, dictatorship and more. Michele Wucker’s “Why the Cocks Fight” is a compact history of both countries and their relationship. I also admire Madison Smartt Bell’s “Haitian Revolution” trilogy, and “The Farming of Bones,” by one of my favorite writers, the Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat. Ditto for how can we write about Hispaniola and not include most of the southern American hemisphere, and for that, the incomparable Eduardo Galeano’s books, most saliently “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” in which Haiti and the Dominican Republic figure frequently.

President Xi Jinping Warns of Gray Rhino Risks

China must be on guard against highly improbable, unimaginable “black swan” events while also fending off highly probable but often neglected “gray rhino” risks, Chinese President Xi Jinping told senior Communist Party officials at the opening ceremony of a study session at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee January 21st.

Xi spoke shortly after newly released economic data showed that in 2018 China’s economy had slowed to the lowest rate in 28 years.

“In the face of a turbulent international situation, a complex and sensitive environment, and the arduous task of reform … We must be highly vigilant against ‘black swan’ and ‘grey rhinoceros’ incidents,” he said. Xinhua News Agency issued a full statement on his talk.

Xi cited areas in which China faces major risks: politics, ideology, economy, science and technology, society, the external environment, and party building.

His comments generated worldwide news coverage, from Australia to Indonesia to Argentina, and helped send U.S. stocks down over concerns about the effect of a slowing Chinese economy on global growth.

Columnist Ana Fuentes of Spain’s El Pais newspaper wrote, “More than black swans, it appears that 2019 will be the year of gray rhinos, threats that we have identified but have not been able to or known how to stop.” Top on her list was the crisis of governability in the West.

THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, was released in China by CITIC Press in February 2017 and has become an influential best-seller.

Books That Inspired Me in 2018

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year and peaceful and prosperous 2019!

Wrapping up 2018, I’m reflecting on the books I’ve read over the past year that have made the biggest impressions. They reflect a range of interests, from ruminations on the nature of risk and uncertainty, to how we classify personalities and attitudes, to a memoir of celiac disease, to a wide-ranging list of fiction.

Risk

Before he died on New Year’s Day 2015, Ulrich Beck was as close to a cult figure as a German academic sociologist could get. In the first five years after its publication, his classic book Risk Society sold more than 60,000 copies. Yes, with four zeroes. He’s not an easy read, but amid the dense academic prose in Risk Society and the later World at Risk are flashes of brilliance.

In similar tone and style, Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty reflects on “a society impotent, as never before, to decide its own course with any degree of certainty, and to protect the chosen itinerary once it has been selected.”

Personalities

Merve Emre tells the story of the mother-daughter team who invented the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs personality test, leading to the $500 million psychometric testing industry and the controversies that surround it, in The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing

In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, Michele Gelfand explores the cultural context of just what the title says: how wedded groups of people are to the rules they’ve set up to shape their society, and how willing they are to take risks in breaking those rules.

Celiac Disease

After she saw me put our waiter through the Celiac Inquisition as we caught up over brunch, a mutual friend of author Paul Graham recommended his memoir of learning to live with celiac disease, In Memory of Bread. His account of how he ended up in the hospital and was diagnosed is epic: an orgy of traditional bread baking (and eating) and craft beer brewing (and drinking). His baking tips are helpful. But what I really loved was how he put into words the worst part of celiac disease: the angst it causes in social meal situations. I gave it to a friend who also cannot eat wheat or other gluten products, and she loved it as much as I did before passing it on to her (also gluten-free) daughter.

Fiction

When Scott Turow spoke at a recent Authors Guild event here in Chicago, I picked up a copy of his recent international legal drama, Testimony, involving the atrocities of the collapse of the now-former Yugoslavia. I’m enjoying it as much as his earlier books, which gave me a glimpse of Chicago many years before I moved here.

Two of the year’s most celebrated novels fully deserve the praise heaped on them.

Madeline Miller’s Circe, a #1 New York Times bestseller, tells the story of the witch who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. Since my dad has a master’s in classics and I grew up on Greek and Roman mythology, I particularly loved this fresh take on the Odyssey and related myths.

The family of “Marsh Girl” Kya, the protagonist of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, abandons her in their home in a swamp when she is seven years old. She raises herself, furtively interacting with the townspeople until their stories intertwine. Both a mystery and coming of age story, the book benefits from Owens’ own expertise as a naturalist.

Most of the other fiction I’ve read over the past year comes from around the world.

I cannot say enough how much I loved Turkish best-selling author Elif Safak’s The Architect’s Apprentice, the story of a boy turned elephant caregiver, architect, and man, and his interactions with royalty and ruffians in Ottoman-era Istanbul. Amazing detail, characters, and plot.

Two Chinese contemporary authors explore the nature of uncertainty through the (mis) adventures of two protagonists making their way through contemporary Beijing.

Orange Prize Finalist Xiaolu Guo’s semi-autobiographical Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the story of a plucky would-be actress who leaves her country home for a career in Beijing.

The narrator of Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing has just been released from prison, and has to figure out how to make a life out of air permeated by the fine yellow dust that so often descends on Beijing. He hawks pirated DVDs and tries to make sense of old and new relationships.

After my trip to South Korea late last year (with a day trip to the DMZ), I discovered several wonderful authors. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a National Book Award finalist, is an epic family saga set in the wake of the Korean War, which drives the protagonists to a complicated new life in Japan.

I picked up Han Kang’s Human Acts in Seoul on the recommendation of a Korean friend who said that it was even better than her Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Vegetarian. She tells the story of the violent student uprisings that took the lives of some of her characters, exploring people’s motivations in taking extreme risks on behalf of family members, friends, and their society.

My friend also recommended Gong Ji-Young’s Our Happy Time, perhaps an odd title for a book about a suicidal young woman and a death row inmate. But it works. The subject interested me in part because I’d heard about Korea’s high suicide rate, but what made the book work was the portrayal of the struggles of the main characters.

And from Japan, Keiko Furukura, the title character of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, is a singular personality, probably somewhere on the spectrum. An unlikely but welcome heroine, she breaks with social expectations and makes her own way through life in Tokyo.

I’ll be continuing my literary tour of the world in 2019 and am looking for books to add to my list. What books have moved you recently?

This article is part of my new weekly series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

Click the blue button on the top right hand of this page to subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.

Why the Cocks Fight Meet the Author at Bronx Community College Dec 4

Michele Wucker spoke at Bronx Community College December 4, 2018 in a “Meet the Author” event with students and faculty. Bronx Community College reported on the event HERE.

Michele’s first book, WHY THE COCKS FIGHT: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola is a 2018 Bronx Community College One Book, One College, One Community selection. The One Book program invites the entire campus to read one book and join together in events and projects exploring and celebrating the themes of the work.

BCC chose WHY THE COCKS FIGHT “because of the many opportunities it provides to examine the complexities of citizenship and race, imperialism and identity, which have particular relevance in today’s global political climate.”

BCC created a study guide for the book. This year’s events included an essay contest whose winners were announced at the December 4th event, a workshop and musical performance with Yasser Tejeda and Palotré, and an art project in which students designed alternative versions of the book cover.