Talking to Swans

What do people that matter to you want? And how do you give it to them without making them understand, let alone admit, that they want it?

6 min readOct 13, 2021


In a movie remake of “The Swan Lake” entitled “Black Swan”, a talented young performer with a promising career is threatened by a rival who seems better suited than her to play the role of the “black swan”. The black swan is just one of the two characters comprising the lead role, the swan queen (the other character being the “white swan”). But it’s the more difficult part to play. Will her rival displace her with a superior ability to embrace the black swan’s darkness?

Spoiler alert — the young performer’s rival is actual a figment of herself, sort of like an “alter”, in the parlance of Disassociative Disorder (née Multiple Personality Disorder).

It’s literally her black swan, a part of her personality whose existence she can’t accept (because it’s too deviant and devil-may-care, maybe even immoral).

* * *

“We don’t understand our own motivations because it’s not in our interests to know them”
-David Ogilvy

This essential psychological insight is the foundation of The Swan Lake’s plot, of Disassociative Disorder, and most especially of marketing and selling anything.

The challenge is to connect this insight to the people for whom you make or do things or whom you advise. What motivations do they not understand because it’s not in their interests to know them?

Ogilvy’s premise is at the heart of “Black Swan Theory”, which these books touch on in different ways:

  • Chris Voss’s book on negotiation, Never Split the Difference
  • Rory Sutherland’s book on branding, Alchemy
  • and of course Nassim Taleb’s book on sociology, The Black Swan

While their focus varies greatly (Taleb is more concerned with external rather than internal events), they share this premise:

(a) each of us behaves in mostly irrational or even random ways
(b) for motives that are largely hidden to us
© and, even if unhidden, not understood at all
(d) because to expose and understand them would force us to accept an unflattering, at best, and soul-crushing at worst, version of ourselves

And if you’re soul is crushed you become a terrible hunter-gatherer, or consultant, or whatever line of work you’re in.

In other words, black swans are the hidden motivators that self-preservational vanity conceals from us.

As Sutherland puts it, “We must be descended from humans skilled at self-deception”.

Of course, the reality is less simple; I think most people slowly uncover, at a non-traumatic pace, their own black swans and those of others around them. Perhaps Google is good at this, like Richelieu.

Still, skill at self-deception is a biological imperative.

* * *

Successful businesses tend to cater to biological imperatives. Fats, sugars, warm places. But the hidden ones are fatter cows. Or swans in this case.

Almost every major tech company has found success by catering to the black swans of the Internet-age human.

And usually, they have done so by accident. But also intentionally. Does it seem cynical to conclude that accidental satisfaction of black-swan motivations accounts for more business success?

Netflix accidentally became the world’s biggest movie theatre. Facebook accidentally became the world’s biggest “morning newspaper”.

By accidentally bumping into (and then skilfully exploiting) black swans at Internet-scale, their profits have been equally scaled.

Why so profitable? Because the Internet brings us the freedom to sidestep conventional behavior — but not the psychological ability to unroot conventional morality.

In other words, we like to glut ourselves and many of us can do so now more easily than Louis IV himself. But we don’t like to think of or be thought of, as a glutton.

In fact, you could say that our black swans' purpose is to conceal one or more of the “Seven Deadly Sins” of Christian theology: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and envy. (Actually, these aren’t sins per se but sinful behavior patterns. But ‘Seven Deadly Behavior Patterns’ doesn’t have the same ring to it).

How can technology products and services let us behave motivated by these seven sins without the nasty label? Sinner.

* * *

Take sloth, for example. Sloth is the absence of interest in almost anything and/or a pathological avoidance of physical and mental exertion.

As such, and to add insult to injury, it’s also the foolish neglect of the “Seven Gifts of Grace”: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, fortitude, and fear of the lord.

At least according to theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Now, who wants to be labeled slothful — raise your hand? No one. But the fact is that this label does apply to all humans, to varying degrees. Just like the other six deadly sins.

But what if sloth is actually relabeled “relaxing” or “self-care”? We’ve entered the age of Netflix vs Aquinas.

The business models of much of big tech, notably Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, e-commerce, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix, are based on cultivating and exploiting sloth.

Netflix has other value propositions of course:

  • No ads
  • Many types of media (feature film, TV, documentary)
  • Enormous selection
  • Easy signup and cancellation
  • High technical quality
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Streamable

(Because strategy is a tangled set of ideas, however mundane)

But at the root of Netflix is this unique value proposition: Netflix will let you indulge in sloth without having to admit or understand that you behave in a slothful way.

Your “sloth Black Swan” is safe with Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon e-commerce

Your “gluttony Black Swan” is safe with Uber Eats.

Your “vainglory Black Swan” is safe with Instagram and Facebook.

* * *

The suggestion algorithm and autoplay features are important to YouTube and Netflix because they exact the bare minimum of exertion, down to the actual arm movements you perform to click play or look things up.

But it might be the fact that autoplay and suggestions exist at all that matters, not the logic behind them. Because we’re basically illogical, at least when it comes to what we do and buy. Sloth trumps rational thought, in this case.

Netflix sponsored an algorithm design contest — the winner took home 1 million — that ended up being worthless and never put into use. Netflix’s suggestion logic in 2021 isn’t different from that of or 25 years ago. The only suggestion algorithm logic that seems to work is to give people more of the same; this is why YouTube and Facebook create such hermetically sealed bubbles of political opinion. They don’t have, a “here’s what you might like” button. let alone a “here’s what would be new and different for you”, they have “next” button.

Like Sutherland in Alchemy, Ogilvy rejected “big data” entirely as a source of insight while embracing it (in the form of direct marketing) as an execution technique. Its only purpose was to fine-tune a living marketing campaign, whose idea has already been put in motion. He got the ideas mostly from talking to a handful of people. 5 is the number he often cited. Imagine, talk to 5 people and figure out what 5 million people are hiding from themselves. Thus was not just the image of the product shaped, but the actual product itself.

People ask — how do you use data and metrics to refine your strategy? Absurd question. Data is for building bridges and predicting the weather, not doing business.

The real question is what do you want (to be, to feel, to be seen as, to enjoy, to do when no one else is looking..) that you don’t know you want? And how do I give that to you without forcing you to acknowledge that you want it?

(first published here



amateur tweets, professional works –pressfield