"There is a huge difference between what people actually know and how much they think they know." – Nassim Taleb
Question: Which of these animals is more likely to kill you: A shark or a deer?
If you said a shark you are not alone. The right answer, however, is the deer. Even if you answered the question correctly the odds of being killed by a deer instead of a shark may surprise you. You are 300-times more likely to be killed at the hands – or the “hoof” if you will – of a deer.
The reason the vast majority of people incorrectly answer this question is because shark attacks, although quite rare, are both vividly recalled and easy to imagine. 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 will likely recall the movie “Jaws.” The former leaves the impression shark attacks are more common than they really are, while the latter ensures those rare attacks are “felt” at a deep, visceral level.
Instances of drivers striking deer on remote country roads and dying in the resulting collision, on the other hand, are much more common. They are so common, in fact, that they rarely warrant even 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. Or as Henry David Thoreau more elegantly framed the issue: “How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?”
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 tools to do 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 houses unread books that contain valuable information but which you haven’t had a chance 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.
Unfortunately, you won’t often know what this missing knowledge is! The best you can do in such a deplorable situation is to stay intellectually humble by reminding yourself of your growing ignorance and the need to remain open to unlearning.
You are free to ignore this advice but remember this: What you don’t know can kill you — almost as easily as a deer.
Homework Assignment #5: 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.