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Unlearning Lesson #6: Study at an Anti-Library

Posted in Black Swan, Unlearning

Lesson #6: Study at an Anti-Library

 “There is a huge difference between what people actually know and how much they think they know.” – Nassim Taleb

Question #6: Which of these animals is more likely to kill you: A shark or a deer?

The right answer is the deer. In fact, the contest isn’t even close. You are 300-times more likely to be killed at the hands—or the “hoof” if you will—of a deer than a shark. The reason a vast majority of people incorrectly answer this question is because shark attacks, although quite rare, are easy to imagine and vividly recalled. For example, it is not uncommon for television news stories to report shark attacks even when those attacks occur thousands of miles away; and, if you are over the age of 40, you may viscerally recall the movie “Jaws.”  On the other hand, instances of drivers striking deer on remote country roads and dying in the resulting collision, are much more common. They occur with such startling regularity that they rarely warrant more than a passing mention on the local news.

The discrepancy between the relative danger of sharks and deer is a poignant reminder of that old adage: What we don’t know is more important than what we do know. One of the better ways to remind of ourselves of our ignorance—and to remain open to the concept of unlearning—is to keep our ignorance top-of-mind. One of the more effective strategies for doing this is to create an anti-library. As Nassim Taleb recounts in his provocative and insightful book, The Black Swan, an anti-library is a collection of books that one hasn’t read.

Unlike a shelf or bookcase filled with previously read books, an anti-library serves as a tangible reminder of all unread books—books that may contain valuable information or insights—but which a person hasn’t yet had the opportunity to access. With an estimated 3,000 new books being published daily and the rate of scientific knowledge purported to be doubling every seven years, it is safe to assume that there is a growing body of knowledge which is relevant to you and your business but which you remain blissfully unaware.

It is also impossible to know everything. Therefore, the best one can do in such a deplorable situation is to use the awareness of this ignorance as a method for staying intellectually humble. By extension, a person more likely to remain open to the necessity of unlearning if they occasionally remind themselves of what they don’t know.

You are, of course, free to ignore this advice but remember this: What you don’t know can kill you—almost as easily as a deer.

Homework Assignment #6: If your financial situation permits start an anti-library. Alternatively, using an online tool such as Shelfari, begin compiling a list of books that might contain useful knowledge but which you don’t or won’t have the time to read. Add a minimum of one book a week for a year to your anti-library.

(P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.)

Interested in other “unlearning”-related posts? Check out these older posts:


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