Why most business books aren’t worth the pixels they’re displayed on (and marketing books are the worst!)

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There are two “business” books that I hold up as the standard by which all others should be judged:

Fooled by Randomness
The Black Swan

Both by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I love these books, even though I find the writing style very grating (you’ll either love it or hate it), and it’s primarily targeted at traders (not an area I work in).

But, there are two things which are great about these works:

  1. Nassim is a mathematician at heart and takes a very strong, scientific approach to everything he does,
  2. You find your own understandings and beliefs on certain topics constantly undermined. I.e. rather than just reading through the book, nodding my head at ideas that confirmed what I already believed, I found my own understandings of various subjects repeatedly shaken.

But, one of the many interesting points Nassim makes is about survivorship bias. This is the phenomena where we tend to ignore the people who failed in a particular endeavour, and only take notice of those who succeeded (“survived”).

The following is a more solid example of this concept (adapted from Nassim’s book), that shows how books can be written about ideas and strategies which are bad ideas, based on those ideas being successful!

If we start with 10,000 marketing managers, and all of these individuals decide to adopt an SEO strategy going forward which can be characterised as “Ignore all this waffle about content – black hat SEO and link baiting is the way forward”. And let’s say this is a poor idea – it’s 70% likely that this will produce worse SEO rankings for the company, but there’s a 30% chance it will actually produce better results. I.e. it’s a bad strategy, because it’s likely to do more damage than good but, because of the great variance in results company by company, it might just work (e.g. I can imagine if you were a tiny, unknown company, that it might give you the small boost up you need out of obscurity, to get a few leads, leading to a more natural organic presence going forward).

Let’s say that, if your company’s SEO results got worse over the course of a year, then your company folded – extreme, but it makes the point. So, after 1 year, of the 10,000 marketing managers who started, 10,000 x 30% = 3,000 will remain: the 3,000 who actually did well out of the black hat SEO strategy. A year later, 3,000 x 30% = 900 remain. A year later, 270 remain, then 81, then 24 after 5 years.

So, by pursuing a terrible approach to SEO for 5 years, there will be 24 individuals who can legitimately stand up and claim that these methods are, in fact, superb, and can show you how their companies have grown from strength to strength for 5 solid years by pursuing these methods. If these people are savvy, they’ll then start SEO consultancies, teaching these methods, showing how you can benefit from black hat SEO and, if they’re really savvy, they’ll write a bestseller on the subject!

Which brings me to the point about business books – you’re only reading the books of the people who succeeded. A recent book I read made the statement “To succeed, you must be innovating every day”. Two initial problems with this statement are, firstly, there’s nothing you can actually do with this statement (a point made in Saturday’s Guardian magazine – coincidentally on the same subject as this!). Secondly, there’s an assumed causality here (that “being innovate every day” had anything to do with success).

However, the real problem is that, it may well have been the case that 1,000 entrepreneurs implemented this strategy, and only 100 actually survived to tell the tale. There could be 900 out there who tried “innovating every day” and actually found themselves constantly distracted with new hare-brained ideas. So instead of focussing down on their core business, they found themselves endlessly pursuing red herrings, finally burning through all funding ending in closure. It is very unlikely that any of those 900 will ever write a book on the subject (how would they get the book deal?) – hence why we see survivorship bias. NB: I have no idea whether the strategy of “innovating every day” is a good one or not – but that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make.

And why are marketing books the worst culprits? Because, by definition these people know how to sell a story. If marketing is your job, then selling an idea is what you do day-to-day. If I wanted to, I reckon I could have a pretty good crack writing 100+ pages on why black hat SEO is the future. So you end up with a series of marketing ideas (“Content is king”, “Social media is king”, “Email is king” and so on), with a number of very talented people selling those ideas, but where’s the evidence? Where’s the guy that tried building his whole business on the back of Facebook Likes and is now working the night-shift to pay off his massive debts? Because he’s the guy I want to speak to..

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