Made of sand

The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo is about how to live in a world that keeps changing in dramatic and unpredictable ways. The world has always been complex. But we’re beginning to understand more about how and why.

Ramo uses the metaphor of a sandpile. Drop one grain of sand on it, and nothing happens. Drop another, and you trigger a small avalanche. Maybe. There’s no way to predict the outcome, or even the size of the avalanche. Translated to our world: Small and indirect action may cause big results, and big and direct action may have no effect at all.

This means that, whether you work in finance, technology or national security, you can’t prepare for specific events. You have to be adaptable, resilient, multi-layered. Leave slack, room to manouver. Expect to be surprised.

These are more or less the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Hayek, and other thinkers of the unpredictable and unknowable, presented in the anecdote-heavy style of Malcom Gladwell. That’s not really a good thing, but as such books go it’s deep enough, and the entertaining style doesn’t get in the way of the overall lesson.

I especially enjoyed Ramo’s description of the adaptive and creative skills of Hezbollah, which he calls the Google of terrorism. I’m not sure what I learned from it, or any of the other anecdotes, expect maybe “be excellent!”, but it’s really fascinating.

All in all I liked it, but it’s shallow compared to, say, The Black Swan.

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