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June 09, 2020

The Burden of Business Books

Justin Liwag


Business Books are fun to read. For startup founders, it almost seems like it’s part of the gig. You start looking into building a company or are already building one, and you are bombarded with “must-read” books. The list is never-ending.

The Lean Startup, Blue Ocean Strategy, Zero to One, Start With Why, etc. The lists are all the same. These books, while helpful, don’t do you any good. What people are especially bad at is evaluating the opportunity cost of actions. I am particularly guilty of this as it is hard not to feel good about improvement, even at the expense of the company’s actual betterment. To learn something new and improve our situation or business is what we obsessively look for. Business books provide that outlet. Fortunately (or unfortunately), almost anything we do will improve our business. The real goal is to maximize that improvement. Business books neglect to do that for us.


The first problem with business books is that they diagnose and analyze problems retrospectively. Once you have gone through, experienced, and solved a problem, it is easy to go back and analyze what and how you did something. But, in reality, it is much harder to see the forest through the trees in the moment. When you are surrounded by the day to day workings of your business or situation, half the battle is just recognizing the problem.

And yet this is what a majority of business books are guilty of doing. They are a study in situational problem-solving in a retrospective frame. These can be useful but are often clinical rather than practical. In Jim Collin’s popular book Good To Great, he studied two different camps of companies, companies he classified as successful and unsuccessful. He tried to define traits and winning tendencies of successful companies and the mistakes and shortcomings of failing companies. The book wraps up things with a nice bow, and we are left feeling satisfied. Taking a look now, some of the companies in the success category are not quite having their shinning moments now.

One of the companies listed in the success category was Circuit City.

Taking the book out of context is easy to do, but it points out how contextual advice is to a specific time, place, and perspective. Many things in the book hold up very well and you can glean pearls of wisdom from it, but it adequately demonstrates that situations change and accepted strategies evolve. It is up to us not to let ourselves get caught up in it and process things without the bias of conventional wisdom.

Ignorance is Bliss

The second problem with business books falls on us. Many times, we often do not correctly diagnose the issues ourselves. While we think we may have a problem with marketing, the underlying cause is usually something else.

To turn to one of Seth Godin’s excellent marketing books when your product is experiencing technical product issues is obviously ridiculous, but often is how people respond. The order of magnitude of our problems is ignored because we are too close to the problem to see them.

Problems are typically not siloed into one area. Problems are usually multifaceted and complex. To think that solving one aspect of our problem will inoculate us from failure is sadly a trap many fall into, including myself. It is tempting because staring into the void of the problem is usually stressful enough as is.

One category of advice that is notorious for oversimplifying problems is growth hacking. People are always looking for tricks or hacks to grow their company. They want something that is light, quippy, and will give them results immediately. Sometimes these things work, but most of the time, the companies who live and die by these tactics usually die. I sometimes wonder just how many companies went under because they followed some of these absurd tips and tricks.

Soluble Solutions

The last problem with business books is that the recommendations are rarely actionable. Business books often give great advice, but they do not prescribe a list of actions that you can achieve and work on because they do not know your business. I would be wary of any that claim to be on a more than reasonable level.

Platitudes, such as know your customer or a/b test your product, are often the right answer. But how you actually go about that is left up to you. It is usually easy to find a theoretical solution, but implementing it correctly in a way that makes sense to your business is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

One example of this is in the Crown Cork & Seal case study. It is a famous case study that is prevalent in many business schools and books. It details the choice that company executives faced as a growing can manufacturer had to make. Do we grow by acquisition, or do we work on internal innovation? This debate has merits on both sides, and a choice could be advocated for either side. In actuality, life is never this simple. The company eventually ended up doing both.

This example shows that we could prescribe solutions and answers from the outside, but without really knowing what the company is doing, we are just as blind as someone who knows nothing about the issues at hand. The professors and students who have tackled this problem over the years are usually very bright and bring a lot to the table, but I would hazard very few if any came to that conclusion. How could they?

Business books follow the same pattern. They are usually quite witty and provide us with stories, examples, and principles to use on a specific part of our business. Whether its marketing, funding, or leadership, they usually deliver information in the same way. The author may have his unique style or voice, but deep down, they are formulaic.

Published books are incentivized to be sold to as many people as possible. The correct solutions or guidance for your business are compartmentalized to your situations in most cases. These dichotomies of motivation are hardly ever aligned, and in this lies the problem.

Strategic vs Tactical Reading

If we are to become better entrepreneurs, we need to change our habits. One of the most significant improvements I think we can make is understanding the difference between strategy and tactics.

A strategy is the high-level game-plan of an operation or organization. Tactics are the day to day maneuvers that take get you to your higher-order goals. For example, running an ad on Facebook and improving your landing page conversion rates are tactics, and using social media advertising to grow your audience is a strategy.

The reason for the differentiation is that tactics are not far off from action. Strategies are usually too high level to implement on an actionable scale immediately. Having a strategy is essential, but often that is not the hard part for many companies. It is the individual day to day things that people muck up.

To shun all books would be unwise, and to ignore learning is even worse. As with anything in life, temperance is the key to maintaining a healthy intake of information. Too much of anything often demonstrates diminishing returns on a good day and debilitating negatives on a bad one. More is not better in most cases.

We need to become more surgical and protective of what we intake. Our personal supply chain of information needs to move from a continuous assembly line to a lean “just in time” process.

When reading books now for work or improvement, I try to follow the one month rule. If I can tangibly accomplish and put into practice what I will read about in the next month, I will happily read it. If not, I will categorize it as a topic to read later. If you can’t immediately implement something, it just gets filed away in the recess of your brain and will be like you didn’t even read it in the first place. You might vaguely remember something here or there, but honestly, you will probably have forgotten any of the contexts and even what the takeaways are.

To read things “just in time” will dramatically improve your throughput and effectiveness.

Reading for Pleasure

One aspect of reading that I think is lost today is the act of reading for pleasure. Reading for pleasure leads you down roads you would never expect. Obtuse ideas and sideways thinking come in the moments away from pressing thoughts.

If we look at great book lists from entrepreneurs, we see books of all kinds on them. It is never just a list of all the typical business books. They read obsessively, but never about only one thing. For example, Bill Gates’ reading recommendations are all over the place. He is a diverse reader in all sense of the word. When Gates does recommend a business book, he often recommends biographies or history books.

One of the common adages of writers is to become a better writer is to read as much as you can. Often, the recommendation is to read books outside of your comfort zone and in different genres.

In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, he noted that one of his favorite books to read is the Jack Reacher series by Lee Childs. On the surface, these authors couldn’t be farther from each other. Malcolm Gladwell writes about real-life stories that are often connected by theme and narrative. Lee Childs is a British author who writes thrillers and is best known for his Jack Reacher novels, which is about a wandering mercenary type character who kills swathes of people and solves mysteries along the way while also killing more people usually.

On the surface, they seem different, but upon closer examination, you will notice a similar line through both authors. They are character-driven. To read Gladwell is to experience a masterclass in a character description and world-building. He is guiding you through an experience you would never have thought or delved into. For all, you know it could all be made up. With Childs, he does the opposite. He attempts to bring his fictional characters to life through apt character descriptions and vivid scene settings. These two authors try to immerse you into the world they are inevitably creating a narrative for.

To read for pleasure and interest can lead to surprising insights and valuable takeaways that you would have never thought about. It is the same reason why Leonardo Da Vinci was interested in anatomy and engineering and why Richard Feynman was just as interested in playing the bongos as he was in science and physics.

Live in the future

How you read is just the tip of the iceberg for a broader topic in general. The most valuable trait that one can cultivate is to think differently. Being traditionally smart never hurts, but too march to the beat of your own drum is much rarer. To be able to move counter to popular conventions or on a different path and have the gumption to stick with it holds more weight than anything in most cases.

Everyone thinks that they are unique when instead, they are just part of a club or group of people that are not widely popular or well known. These clubs have conventions and processes just like any other group. Being different in many cases is relative to whom you surround yourself with.

Traditional advice has its place but often is “traditional” because it solves a predefined problem. Not every problem is unique and mind bendingly tricky, but the problems that are, are the ones you want and should tackle on your own.

Paul Graham said that innovation is actually quite simple. All you have to do is live in the future, then build what’s missing. The cost of living in the future, though, is that you are often by yourself.

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