Shallow lesson of business books

By John Kay

Financial Times 28 August 2007



The mistake both authors and publishers of business books make is to confuse a book about “what I did” with a book about “how to do it”. Whether you are successful because you are skilful or successful because you are lucky, you can easily, and mistakenly, convince yourself that your own experience shows that anyone can do it.

The poolside is twice as pleasurable this year because swimming is so much more enjoyable. The credit goes to pioneers of new methods of swimming instruction, Steven Shaw and Terry Laughlin.

In my experience, most swimming lessons are delivered by charming young Australians, excellent swimmers who have been at home in the water since they were young children. They regard those who flounder in the water with incomprehension. They say “watch me” as they vanish towards the other end of the pool.

But what bad swimmers need is to be taught to do the things good swimmers do naturally. Bad swimmers must overcome their fear of water and learn to balance and float. The skills of being good at something and being good at teaching others to do it are completely different.

That lesson seems relevant to the pile of bad books by my deckchair. I have been skimming the clutch of recent guides to entrepreneurship. Most are spin-offs from television programmes. The message of all is that anyone can do it, which is indeed the title of two of these books.

I do not know whether skill or luck was the more important contributor to the development of Coffee Republic, the success of mobile phone magnate Peter Jones, or of publisher Felix Dennis or the coups of property speculator Duncan Bannatyne. Nor do these authors know.

But whether you are successful because you are skilful, like swimmer Mark Spitz, or successful because you are lucky, like a lottery winner, you can easily, and mistakenly, convince yourself that your own experience shows that anyone can do it. After all, anyone who is Mark Spitz can be an Olympic swimming champion, and anyone can be a lottery winner if they buy the right ticket.

There is nothing to be learnt from memorising the banal tips provided by these books – aim to succeed, show determination, have a good idea, work hard. John Paul Getty, asked for the secrets of his success, said it all: “Strike oil.”

If you are looking for common characteristics of these successful entrepreneurs, you learn that none of them can write well and all of them are vain. I am sure you do not need to write well to succeed in business. Perhaps you need to be vain: or perhaps vanity is just a characteristic of the self-selected sample of entrepreneurs who write books about their experiences.

Television finds an even more unrepresentative sample of those who have made it in business. Only a few entrepreneurs aspire to be movie stars. Fewer still commend themselves to producers as having star quality.

The business people whose insights I value mostly think that business is complex, that there are few universal recipes for success, and explain that much of their time is spent gently coaxing the best from people. Such entrepreneurs do not make it onto the small screen. Those who appear on television are, of necessity, people with outsized personalities who exude confidence and possess a talent for one-line answers.

That is how Sir Alan Sugar and Donald Trump become the public face of business. It propagates the idea that the main quality required is aggression. This emphasis is misleading for those who want to go into business, and reinforces the prejudices of those who are instinctively hostile to it.

Perhaps I am too hard on these books about entrepreneurship. If you look at the reader reviews on Amazon you find touching public expressions of gratitude for the inspiration people say they have found in them. This is the role such books can play. No one can seriously imagine that by reading the memoirs of a sporting hero they will learn how to be good at football. But some kids who read these books may be fired with ambition to succeed at football, or in life.

The mistake both authors and publishers of business books make is to confuse a book about “what I did” with a book about “how to do it”. The result gives us insight from someone’s biography only accidentally and has little to offer in terms of useful advice. The skills of the coach are not the same as the skills of the practitioner. That is true in both the pool and the boardroom.


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