The Illogical Fear of Swans
As a child I was scared…
There. I said it.
I didn’t encounter swans very often. But when I did, it was always at a coward’s distance of about 200 metres.
I blame one of my old school teachers for stoking this fear. Before letting us loose on an excursion, she gathered everyone round and warned us never – EVER – to mess with the graceful lake-dwellers. Don’t approach them. Don’t eyeball them. Don’t even make swan-based jokes within earshot of one of them. A carefully aimed peck or wing-flap could break an arm, she said.
Not only that, they were vindictive bastards, she said (in a manner of speaking).
If a swan felt threatened – for any reason… even for NO reason – it would go on the attack, without warning.
It would come at you in a flash of airborne fury… beating its huge wings, aiming a flurry of beak-butts at your face, head and upper torso. Snapping limbs like an avian Bruce Lee.
It can’t be bargained with, she said.
It can’t be reasoned with.
It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.
And it absolutely will not stop – ever – until you’re dead.
No wait, that’s a Terminator.
But swans instilled the same fear in the nine-year-old me.
To add insult to injury, they’re a protected species in England. So you couldn’t give your winged attacker a retaliatory boot in the guts.
I found out – years later – my teacher had embellished the threat somewhat.
A lot, in fact.
According to John Huston of the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, England:
‘If you approach a swan nest on the river, they might get aggressive and hiss and flap their wings, but the danger is over-rated and it’s a myth that they will break your leg or arm with their wings. They are not that strong and it’s mostly show and bluster.’
Abbotsbury is home to 1,000 swans. There are no recorded attacks on humans in the colony’s 600-year history.
Why all the swan talk?
Well, let me ask you a question:
Are you worried – genuinely worried – that the world (as you know it) might end in your lifetime?
Are you convinced that some ‘major event’ is coming?
Something that will change human kind forever… or even wipe us out… Like a global financial disaster, nuclear war, ecological catastrophe or astrological incident?
I have a little ‘side-worry’ about all of this stuff.
I read about it a fair bit. I enjoy reading about it. It fascinates me. I have a healthy respect for the subject.
But I’m not obsessed with it.
The chances of some kind of apocalyptic event happening in your lifetime are slim. Like the chances of a swan attack.
Most of the unpleasant stuff that happens in your life is minor.
The Foxtel cuts out mid-way through the final quarter… the heating conks out when it drops below 10 degrees in the lounge room… Coles runs out of PG Tips tea bags (a welcome taste of the auld country).
Trivial boo-boos. Irritating. But not game changing. They’re high frequency, low magnitude. We’re adults. We’ll gripe for a bit. But we’ll cope.
What about the more serious stuff?
Well, big shocking events don’t happen very often, thankfully.
But they do happen.
The essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously calls these ‘Black Swan’ events.
Black Swans are unexpected; low probability, high magnitude events.
A black swan event forces us to make tough decisions and change plans – unless we happen to be prepared for it.
Taleb lists the First World War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of the internet among the Black Swan events that’ve shaped our recent history (shocking, by the way, doesn’t always mean ‘bad’).
My friends over at Port Phillip Publishing make it their business to consider the emergence of Black Swans in financial markets and warn their readers ahead of time.
They believe you can (and should) build robustness against negative Black Swans that occur… and be prepared to exploit positive ones.
My buddies know their history. They’re well versed. They study the portents. They feel a great responsibility to prepare their readers for high magnitude events.
It makes for some of the most exciting reading on geopolitics and the economy anywhere in Australia.
It’s not my beat anymore. But I say fair play to my erstwhile colleagues.
You’ll remember how the global financial crisis wiped $160bn off the value of super funds in 2008. And how, between October 2007 and March 2009, the Australian stock market HALVED in value.
Few people saw it coming. Even fewer admitted it could happen. That meant it was all the more devastating for anyone using the stock market as their retirement savings account.
It certainly redefined the concept of retirement for a lot of Australians who were getting ready for a cold beer and a long holiday.
One of the people who did see it coming was my mate Dan Denning. Back then, Dan wrote a newsletter called Outstanding Investments, from our old PPP office above a podiatrist in Elwood, VIC.
His September 2007 issue included a sell alert on all the US stocks in the OI portfolio.
Dan had been writing about the ‘abnormal and dangerous’ conditions in the market for some time. He sensed the sky was about to fall. It was time to cash out. He advised his readers to sell. An outstanding investment call by any measure. The rest is history.
No one is right about everything all the time. But my friends at Port Phillip Publishing only have to be right once to save you (or make you) the kind of money that defines your existence on this planet. That’s what makes them worth listening to.
Hooked on danger
So should you fear the swan?
Heck no. We’re talking about low-probability events. Often random. Almost always beyond your control. Preparing for them is sensible. Fearing them is a bit OTT. Obsessing over them is irrational.
Think: you could be spending that time watching Game of Thrones… drinking a Bundy on your veranda… or making eyes at the pretty girl (or strapping guy) who works at the Post Office.
So don’t fear the swan. Simply acknowledge and respect that Black Swan events can happen. Even just knowing that can save you a world of hurt.
This is why I still keep a respectful distance from swans of all creeds every time I take a stroll around Albert Park Lake. Even though I know the chances of me being pecked to death are slim.
As Taleb – and my buddies at Port Phillip Publishing – say, you can cope with a Black Swan event by building ‘robustness’ against the negative ones and by planning to exploit the positive ones.
You might think it’s wasted effort to plan for something that might never happen. But as I’ll explain next week, it’s easy.
You just need to pay attention to smart people who don’t have a vested interest in your money. It’s hard to find those people… but not impossible.
Sadly, *most* financial professionals in Australia DO have designs on your cash. Your money keeps them in business. They aren’t going to tell you to take it out of the market. They don’t make money if your money isn’t in play.
Personally, I think you need to be asking A LOT more questions of these ‘pros’. Where is your money? Who is it really working for? Do the people investing it know your financial goals? Do they care if you retire happy… rich… or potless? Are they doing right by you… or themselves?
Next week I’m going to introduce you to some *really* smart finance people who don’t have a vested interest in your money (yes, they exist).
They are smart. They are straight talking. They can help you make sense of what’s happening in the Australian stock market… and the economy.
And they can help you prepare for – and exploit – the Black Swan events that catch everybody else off guard.
Ciao for now,
Editor, The Escapologist