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David Bouchier: Conspicuous Consultation

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Consultancy is the ultimate universal job opportunity. Anyone can set up as a consultant on just about anything, apart from the great monopolies of medicine and law.  You can buy the skills of an ex-architect, or an ex-computer programmer, an ex-banker, or even an ex-executive for a tiny fraction of what they would cost if they had real jobs.

There are now about a half a million independent consultants in the United States. Some have chosen consulting as a retirement career, but many are victims of middle-class unemployment. It may seem like a waste of talent. But look at it this way. Consultancy is moment of opportunity, a chance to break out of the concrete-and-glass strait jacket and do something creative with your life. Karl Marx was all set for a quiet academic life as a professor at the University of Bonn when he was thrown out in 1841, after which he had a long and satisfying career as chief consultant to the International Communist Conspiracy. 

A consultant, by definition is a superior kind of person, who has special knowledge that other people want. Sherlock Holmes was not just a detective, but a "consulting detective," which enormously increased the prestige of that unsavory profession. In the British health care system, the Consultant is the highest form of medical life. He even drops the "Doctor" from his name and reverts to plain "Mr." as a sign that he is beyond the need for titles.

Consultants are healers. Their mission is to fix all the things in our lives and businesses that don't work, or that we don't understand. There are consultants on garden design, beauty, interior decoration, educational choice, what to do about your cat's bad habits, resumé writing, child discipline (bit of a lost cause, that one), office management, financial planning, and just about every frustrating problem of everyday life.  There are indeed even "life coaches" who, presumably,can be consulted about absolutely anything.

A consultant will usually tell you what you could figure out yourself, but that’s not the point.Consulting brings reassurance, and relief from responsibility. When your hard disk has gone a bit floppy, or when it turns out that your idea for a great American novel about a crazed sea captain chasing a white whale has been done already, it's better to hear the bad news from someone else.

We all have the potential to be consultants because we must know at least one thing that other people might want to know – about lawn care or French cooking or Beethoven’s Late Quartets. It's just a question of finding a market for that knowledge. My wife is the only person in the world who can explain the plots of those complicated crime mysteries on public television, so she could have a great career as a Plot Clarification Consultant.

I would rather like to become a consultant myself. All that holds me back is the question of marketing. What knowledge do I have that other people might be willing to pay for? The answer is: not much. But I can see a niche for myself as a sort of clearing house for consultation, a sort of Consulting Consultancy Consultant, directing the flow of questions and answers like the conductor of a great orchestra. It can hardly fail, as long as everybody remembers to consult me first.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.