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In the antechamber of hope or why creatives and academics were so receptive to Obama

I am finally reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's mesmerizing book The Black Swan - The Impact of The Highly Improbable, and I am intrigued by the parallels you can draw to Obama's campaign (they may be quite a stretch, but those are the best, no?)

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
3 min read

I am finally reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s mesmerizing book The Black Swan – The Impact of The Highly Improbable, and I am intrigued by the parallels you can draw to Obama’s campaign (they may be quite a stretch, but those are the best, no?)

In a chapter titled “Living in the Antechamber of Hope,” Taleb refers to empirical research showing that on average venture capitalists capitalize better on innovations than the actual innovator, that publishers make more money with books than writers, that agents do better than artists, and that R&D managers do better than scientists: “The person involved in such gambles is paid in a currency other than material success: hope.” As Taleb argues, most artists and scientists spend most of their life waiting for that one big rewarding event that gets them the recognition they’d been hoping for and justifies for “the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure,” the discrimination that goes along with a consistently volatile social status: “The problem of lumpy payoffs is not so much in the lack of income they entail, but the pecking order, the loss of dignity, the subtle humiliations near the water cooler.”

In other words: Creatives and scientists wait for what Taleb calls a “black swan,” a highly improbable event -- like Obama’s election. Such event becomes all the more meaningful the more improbable it is. A 47-year old African-American senator with the name Barack Hussein Obama elected US president? Musicians, writers, painters, sculptors, actors, directors, scientists, and other members of the “hoping class” -- which basically includes all those professions for which only extreme outcomes are relevant (this obviously excludes doctors, lawyers, and, yes, also plumbers) -- could easily identify with Obama as he represented their very own existential struggle: overcoming the empirical odds, fighting an impossible fight, striving for that one rare, visible moment of reward. His pursuit of excellence matched theirs, and his message of "hope" provided a perfectly clean slate onto which they could project their own.

Hope goes a long way. Taleb recounts the narrative of the novel Il Deserto dei Tartari by Dino Buzzati, the story of a young officer who is assigned to a remote fortress protecting the nation from a highly unlikely attack from the bordering desert (that no human has ever crossed). First, he is desperately looking for a loophole to bail out, but after a mysterious revelation he embraces his destiny and decides to extend his stay. He ends up spending his whole life at the outpost, "thirty-five years of pure hope, spent in the grip of the idea that one day (…) the attackers will eventually emerge and help him rise to the occasion.” And ultimately make sense of it all. The end, however, is tragic: the officer dies in a roadside inn shortly before the event he has been waiting for all his life finally takes place.

Missing the “black swan,” the highly improbable event of a lifetime, is one form of tragedy, but the occurrence of such event poses a challenge for those who had desired it, too. It can lead to the kind of postpartum depression many Obama supporters are experiencing now -- serious withdrawal and a deflation of high-riding emotions. The “Principle of Hope” (Ernst Bloch) works only as long as Utopia stays Utopian. Now that the movement has arrived at its final destination, and the tribes have been subsumed by the broader (media) phenomenon of Generation O, how do the hopeful move on and go back to their individual lives?

Recognizing that a “black swan” is not just a figment of the imagination, accepting it into the canon of the probable, and stripping it of its unique sensation, comes with a painful catharsis among believers -- because we made it happen, maybe this is all there is. The significance of the historic collective accomplishment brutally exposes one's own individual insignificance. What remains is a very personal hang-over, an obscure disappointment about hope being resolved in actuality.