The problem with business books, and a solution

April 17, 2014 by Joshua
in Education, Entrepreneurship, Leadership

Why do you read business books?

I’ve asked people that question lately and a common theme runs through their answers. They read business books to improve their performance. They read them to get this feeling, like when the read something like that mastery takes ten thousand hours of dedicated effort:

“That’s a useful piece of information [or technique]. Now that I know it I can use it to get ahead.”

That is, they read business books to change their behavior. Some people clarify that they read them to improve skills so they can lead others better, meaning to change others’ behavior, but they do that by changing their behavior first, so they have the same goal.

It’s not the only reason, but I found it common. It’s not enough for everyone, though. Many others also want this competitive feeling:

“Since I have this information [or technique] and others don’t I can use it to get ahead of my peers.”

that motivates not just reading business books, but reading a lot of them. Some also have a less secure feeling based in competition and scarcity, maybe mixed with some fear:

“If I don’t keep reading these books, others might outcompete me and leave me behind.”

These are powerful motivations. I could see them as addictive since they make you feel good while reading them and fill you with fear if you don’t.

The root question: Do business books work?

I support people doing things just to feel rewarding. I don’t support things where their lack makes you feel punishment—unless, that is, the thing helps you. So the question is:

Do business books help you?

In particular, since people read them to change behavior

Do business books change behavior?

Having studied Einstein, I have to ask relative to what. Obviously they help you more than watching TV, but are there better options?

Now that I’m teaching inquiry-driven project-based learning, I see the much more profound effects of experiential, student-focused learning. That style also affects my coaching. Experiential teaching and coaching change behavior and create understanding so much more than reading I don’t even think of them as comparable processes. Reading is like lecturing. It helps more than watching television or staring at the wall for hours on end, but it doesn’t create learning. If the writer tells great stories, the book may engage the reader, but it won’t help them much.

Do business books change behavior more than what people could do instead?

Among the people I talked to, the books did change their behavior, but not by much, especially considering the hours they put into reading.

Given the time we invest reading them, business books don’t change behavior much. Exercises do.

I’ve moved most of my practice toward experiential, project-based learning, both with private clients and with students. Projects and exercises tailored to clients and their interests engage them more, change their behavior more, and lead them to learn and develop more than passive reading or watching lectures.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.

Including

  • Step by step instructions
  • Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
  • An excerpt from my book

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