It felt like a gift this week to hear about this TedX talk on Gray Rhino’s by Michelle Wucker. After my initial dismay that it was not a guide to the ultimate African Safari (#goals) my nerd alert was set to stun as I listened to what felt like the ultimate follow up to last week’s post on disconfirming evidence.

The Gray Rhino is a metaphor Michelle created to talk about the problems that we fail to see: problems that while highly probable and controllable are still neglected. She references the difference between the grandparents who plan their death down to the funeral lunch menu and those whose attics are full to bursting with a lifetime of, well, crap. Putting a very vivid picture to the quote by Benjamin Franklin “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”.

On that point, hands up if you are usually in a manic stress panic when tax time comes around each year. My hand is up! In my memory it’s been the same time every year but somehow I am never - even remotely - prepared.


Now you can stop gloating if you are one of those highly organised people because the odds on there are other areas of your life where we can go hunting for gray rhino’s. Michelle explains that it’s not dumb or ignorant to miss a problem that is right in front of you . . . it’s human. In fact she adds that most of the problems we face will be hiding in plain sight.

Michelle developed the gray rhino concept to counter the helplessness inherent in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Black Swan proffers that some events are unpredictable and impossible to plan for: that there are some events we just will not be able to see coming. So kinda why bother even trying . . . well, Michelle would ask, is it really unforeseeable or just inconvenient and uncomfortable?

Key to her analysis, which as an economic policy advisor is pretty infallible, is that many situations that after the fact seemed out of left field could in fact have been predicted. The 2008 financial market collapse is one example of a so-called Black Swan event that she notes there were many early warning markers to suggest it was inevitable. We just preferred not to see the signs in advance; we were not looking for the disconfirming evidence.


Michelle posits that the more information we seek - allowing ourselves to see our blind spots - the more control we gain over a given situation. She  adds that in her experience the people who are able to see their blinds spots, and make plans accordingly, are also able to tolerate risk a lot better. So essentially, the more we orient ourselves to the disconfirming evidence in our world the more successful we can be.

From a squiggly standpoint her talk really resonated with me. The simplistic perspective of squiggling is that you make it up as you go along; bump along life’s path treating it all as one big learning and hope to make the best of it somewhere along the line. The nuance to squiggling is we need to be curious and informed about the environment we are operating in and, most importantly, we need to be able to see what is NOT there as much as we see what is there.

Just like we were on safari, we need to get our binoculars out and scan the horizon for what is camouflaged from our view. The inverse of a safari: we are actively expecting to see Rhino’s - it’s the Black Swan that is the rare sighting.