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Antilibrary: The Secret of the Humble Manager
What you don't know is more valuable than what you know
Line reports tend to lack nuance when it comes to evaluating their managers; they perceive them as either all-knowing or completely clueless.
Humans Managers also like to be perceived as knowledgeable, especially in tech where lacking technical aptitude can lower their connection, credibility, and legitimacy—something I touched upon last week:
As such, the average environment of a tech manager is not conducive to humility.
They are people managers in a technical domain; they fear being ‘outed’ as a fraudster by their team.
In contrast, they are part of leadership where their peers are not technical; so they enjoy the status of a ‘technical’ person.
The field is hyped and their pay checks overinflated. That much money either i) fuels their self-importance, or ii) makes them feel embarrassed about their income.
There is not much there to help offset the Dunning-Kruger effect. Instead, you need to be intentional about the boundaries of your knowledge.
One useful tool to have in your toolbox during your perpetual struggle against the unknown is the concept of antilibrary. Similar to the Japanese concept of Tsundoku—the phenomenon of acquiring books but letting them pile up at home—the idea of an antilibrary is about humility and curiosity.
Coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, the antilibrary is the weapon of choice of the antischolar. A scholar is someone who knows a lot of things. An antischolar, Taleb writes:
Someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat their knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device—a sceptical empiricist.
There are two ways you can go on about utilising the power of antilibrary.
Building an Antilibrary
The antilibrary is the totality of unread books you own. Naturally, you need to start curating a list of potential suspects if you don’t have books at home or have read all the books you own. Try the following to jumpstart your list:
Make a list of topics you want to learn more about, especially those outside your current expertise. This helps highlight the gaps in your knowledge. Then use Google/Wikipedia and get inspired by the ‘classics’ and the references.
When browsing bookstores (or libraries), actively seek out books in novel subject areas. Acquire more books than you can reasonably read to always have an abundance of unread works. I buy a lot of books just because I like the cover(!) and find the title intriguing.
Avoid only reading books that reinforce your existing viewpoints. Instead, explicitly seek out books that challenge your perspectives. The antilibrary should expand your horizons.
Don't feel compelled to finish every book you start—I have a rather atrocious completion rate! It's OK to put a book down and explore something else if it's not resonating with you. It’s not about stats-keeping; curiosity is more important than completion.
Don't treat your current knowledge as complete or fixed. View learning as an endless, humbling process full of surprises (good and bad). There is always more to explore—you are always fighting against the DK curve.
Discuss ideas from your antilibrary with others. The exchange of perspectives helps highlight the limits of your own. Also see: strong opinions, loosely held (although it can be problematic in practice).
Most importantly, maintain a beginner's mind. Approach new books and subjects with an openness and lack of preconceptions, no matter how ‘learned’ you become.
Antilibrary as an Intuition Pump
You can also utilise your antilibrary more intentionally.
I like to sit on the sofa and stare at the unread section until something intrigues my interest. Then, I pick that book and read all the text on it without opening it; i.e. the front and back covers. If this gives me enough inspiration to go on, I start thinking about the concept (feel free to put back the book at this point, but I like the physical sensation of turning the pages without looking at them while I think). If not, I read the table of contents. Usually by this point, I have enough intellectual simulation I need to brainstorm about the topic of the book. Otherwise, I put it back and try another.
To give a more tangible example, consider the following three books I have in my antilibrary:
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry. Grab this book and brainstorm—what would you wish that your parents knew? What would your (real/hypothetical) children wish you knew?
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Pérez. This book has examples of a world designed with men in mind in the back cover (mobile phone sizes, car accident statistics, pharmaceutical research). As a man, I think about things that are just right for me, things that I take for granted. Would my partner share my experiences?
Escape from Model Land: How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It by Erica Thompson. This is an interim antilibrary entry as I fully intend to read it, but since I bought the copy, I keep thinking about how much confidence people have in statistical/ML models and the potential hazards of our trust in them.
As a matter of fact, I got the idea of intuition pumps from my antilibrary. It’s from a book called Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. I tried to read it several times and failed miserably. But I still get value out of it—it helps me to think about potential intuition pumps. I think if I’d have read the book, I might have forgotten about it already given my lack of enthusiasm—I’d have read it for the sake of reading it.
This is the core idea behind antilibrary—you get more value from the books you have yet to read. If/when you read a book—i.e. page by page, cover to cover—just like a wave function collapse, the meaning and the message of the book will collapse to that of the author’s intention. If you keep the door open, your imagination will come up with a multitude of meanings and messages, leading to a richer experience (and ROI, if you are that way inclined).
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