Why Every Consultant Should Build An Antilibrary

This will keep you intellectually curious and humble.

Unread books can be as valuable as the ones we've read. Unexplored ideas can be as powerful as our methodology and documented IP. We just need to look at them from the right perspective.

One of my favorite thinkers and authors is Nassim Taleb. In "The Black Swan", Taleb shares the peculiar relationship Umberto Eco had with books to introduces the idea of an antilibrary:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool.

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

An antilibrary is a private collection of unread books or unexplored ideas.

For Umberto Eco, the goal of a library is not to impress visitors. Books should be a source of research, that will later be employed to deliver better work. Every idea is essentially a combination of other smaller ideas, after all.

Applying this analogy to the consulting world, we can see that very few consultants build an antilibrary. The way I look at it, there are two main toxic behaviors in place: Using ideas to boost your ego and social status, and avoiding new ideas.

First, we tend to treat our specific knowledge and ideas as things that need to be protected and defended. Consultants will debate who was the first to come up with a concept or framework. Some will go as far as taking legal action so that only they can use a term or process on client engagements.

The truth is that it's impossible to declare ownership over an idea. Copyrights protect expression and creativity, patents protect inventions. Neither copyrights nor patents protect ideas.

Of course, intellectual property is valuable and should be monetized. But its value comes from what you do with it. Patting yourself in the back for every smart idea you take ownership of is a waste of time, and all it does is shortly lift your self-image.

Second, we avoid contact with "unread books", or ideas we're not comfortable with. Closing ourselves into this bubble is one of the main drivers of the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we tend to overestimate how much we really know.

While it's clear most consultants would never explicitly list on their website all of the things they haven't studied or experienced, knowing what those things are provide a clear map for you to deepen your expertise. As long as you're aware of the cost of curiosity, you can always learn more.

Here are some tips for you to start building your antilibrary:

  • Document and examine your existing ideas. The act of writing is the most powerful exercise to discover ideas. Ask yourself what's obvious and what's missing. What's surprising and what's useful. You'll start to notice holes in your thinking, or things you don't understand that well. Investigate those.
  • Go deeper by finding relevant references. When an author mentions another book or publication, check the exact reference and make a note of it. Do this every time you consume content, and you will have a list of all the relevant sources on a specific topic. Add them to your antilibrary.
  • Ask for recommendations. If you read a book that you particularly enjoyed and would like to learn more about the topic, look for similar books. You ask for recommendations, or use Goodreads or Amazon to find similar books. Check the reviews before adding them to your antilibrary.
  • Allow for serendipity. If you find a book or post with an intriguing title, save it on a to-read list. Make sure you leave some space for chance discoveries.

As Anne-Laure Le Cunff puts it, "An antilibrary creates a humble relationship with knowledge. It reminds us that our knowledge is finite and imperfect. Far from being negative, this awareness can drive our curiosity and encourage us to question our assumptions."

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