Business books

[n.b. This post has absolutely nothing to do with yesterday’s post. Lots of interesting discussion happening out there, though – Mary Hodder was kind enough to clarify her intent with a comment on my post, and put up a post collecting other feedback on the subject]

Today, we’re returning to an observation I made at the end of my post about writing in books, where I noted that even if the words in a book didn’t change between readings, my perspective on them did, because of the intervening life experience I had gained. In particular, I want to talk about business books.

When I was up in Portland, we visited Powells, as I noted. I wandered over to the business/management section, and eventually bought the book Selling the Invisible, by Harry Beckwith, which is about how to effectively market one’s company in a service-based economy. Jofish glanced at it and mentioned that he was often unimpressed with business books because they make really obvious statements, with very little justification or research behind them (and if you go to the Amazon page, you’ll see that many others have the same complaint about this book).

And it struck me as interesting, because I used to have the exact same attitude when I was in grad school. Business books had the equivalent semantic content of a science book that made statements like “Water is wet! See, when you put your hand in water, it gets wet! If you don’t want to get wet, don’t touch water!”, repeated ad nauseam. And yet, now I find them relatively useful. What’s changed?

Well, obviously, I have. I’ve been out in the corporate world for eight years, and seen that companies, ranging in size from small startups to multinational corporations, make stupid mistakes based on what can only be characterized as an autistic conception of human nature. I’ve railed about stupid management approaches before, so I don’t need to here. But such experience has given me a new appreciation for the sheer amount of effort it takes to get an organization to change its path, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that it is wrong. One has to repeat oneself over and over and over again, and even then one will be ignored. Changing the course of the Titanic is child’s play in comparison.

So how do business books help me?

  • They provide new and different ways of articulating points that I find valuable. I often can get stuck in a rut of using the same examples over and over again, and business books can provide new ways of illustrating the problems that I am trying to address.
  • They provide a source of authority. As a relatively young person, any ideas I have are often dismissed with “Oh, you’ll grow up and stop being so idealistic soon enough.” But when I can point to a best-selling book like Good to Great or Sources of Power, with impeccable research and years of studies to back up their conclusions, it lends weight to my intuitions of why the decisions being made by management are inappropriate.
  • They address real problems. When I was reading them in grad school, I thought that the situations they talked about were simplistic and stupid. Now that I’ve been confronted with such simplicity and stupidity, it makes the business books far more relevant to me; I’m often thinking things like “Oh, that’s like the time that we made that decision”.
  • They are simple and direct. While I would love to have more time to read, I just don’t. So having books that are designed to quickly and efficiently communicate relevant concepts is great. I slammed through Good to Great in maybe three hours, and got a lot out of it. Bad business books often have only one idea that they illustrate with a different case study in each chapter, which sucks, but good ones tend to have a unifying theme, with different points of emphasis in each chapter. Either way, it’s a short and sweet read, which is a great way to absorb information because I don’t have time to go read primary sources, and/or carefully examine the experimental studies myself.
  • They are action-oriented. Management and marketing books are a great way to learn about applied psychology. They take obscure cognitive science studies and find ways to apply them to the art of making money. It’s crass, but it’s useful.

Man. I didn’t intend for this post to become a paean to business books. But I think it’s a good example of how my perception of them has changed drastically because of my experience over the past several years.

Just to tie this post into what has become the unifying theme of this blog recently, it demonstrates, once again, the absurdity of assuming that we all share a common reality. The example of business books demonstrates that I don’t even share a common reality with the person I was eight years ago. Expecting my reality coefficients to match anybody else’s is unrealistic. We need to develop tools that recognize that, like the personalized blog recommendation tool that I suggested yesterday.

Admittedly, there’s a whole ‘nother post about how to deal with people whose reality coefficients don’t match one’s own. But maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.

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