Professional Development

Why most business self-help books can just f*ck off

Ian Whitworth /

disruption old business quiz

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: supplied.

I love book shops, a habit left over from my quest to be the single uncoolest teenager on the Gold Coast. What I found last time I went to one left me really depressed. This:

And this.

That’s just a tiny sample. There were at least three shelves of them, all asterisks and emojis where the swear vowels should be.

Dozens of authors who have all thought: I have something original burning within me, something people must read … but I will package it as an embarrassing copy of the Mark Manson book because that one is so successful you literally cannot board a plane anywhere without climbing over piles of copies.

Something I always enjoy is how their “sweary advice for badasses like me, because I’m an outlaw author” shtick doesn’t extend to actual swearing on the cover. Weak.

Tip: designs and communication pieces chosen in your boardroom can seem great in isolation, but when you release them into the wild, they look sad and derivative among all the others who had the same predictable idea.

Also: if you’re about to jump on a cool-seeming bandwagon, ask yourself if you’ll reflect on this in five years with burning embarrassment, like that time grown adults were declaring themselves Mayor Of The Local Supermarket on Foursquare*.

A while back I referenced a book called Leverage Your Great: How Winners Futurize Their Performance.

It got quite a response, much of it along these lines:

So, keen readers, I thought I’d give you my Top 10 Business / Self Help Books for 2019. So many real game-changers here.

1. Who Moved My Turmeric Latte?

2. There’s No ‘I’ In Team But There’s A ‘U’ In Disruption

3. Chief Excellence Office Of You, Inc

4. The Future Is Coming At The Speed Of Time

5. How Real Leaders Re-Intention Teams

6. Winnovate Or Perish

7. Only Half Way To 220%: Why 110% Doesn’t Cut It Any More

8. The Work-Life Balance Sheet: Lead A Life of Higher Net Equity

9. Leaders Wash Last

10. Be More Like Me

In #10 in particular, Hartog gets right to the essence of most business books, particularly the CEO genre.

You may have some issues tracking down copies of these, seeing as I made them all up on a flight recently, and designed the covers in PowerPoint.

It’s pretty easy to come up with self-help books that look plausible, yet have no value whatsoever.

Behind closed doors at the Success Factory

Want to know where heaps of business books come from? There are lots of expensive ‘So You Want To Be An Opinion Leader’ academies where you go to learn how to be the next Gary Vee. They take you away for a single weekend, and they guarantee you’ll come home with the first draft of your new book.

That … doesn’t sound like a very good book. To borrow a line from Truman Capote: that’s not writing, that’s typing.

I don’t want to put you off reading books, it’s legit one of the most essential tools to get anywhere.

But your time is precious and you can waste a ton of time reading books that were actually written by ex-real estate sales grifters trying to hustle a spot on the speaking circuit. A few pointers:

Have they actually done it?

Ask yourself: does the author really have a strong public track record in that thing they’re writing about? If not: bin. You’ll be amazed how many of them are just recycling LinkedIn takes or have just ‘interviewed’ actual achievers.

Try to read outside your direct topic

Every industry has its own orthodoxies that feed off everyone writing and republishing the same articles. Even those ideas are mostly right, you won’t get breakthrough inspiration unless you go off-topic and find ideas to steal from elsewhere.

If you only read sales books, you’ll never develop a broader sense of the human condition. So your career will top out at a functional, journeywoman level rather than getting to the levels that only wisdom can unlock.

Go back to the classics**

Half the books written today use the same basic ideas as 1937’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, because basic human nature doesn’t change regardless of what device they’re holding, and anyone whose book says it has is a charlatan. For non-technical inspiration, read stuff that’s endured. Most books that go to multiple reprints do that for a reason.

What would … Jesus, CEO, do?

Finally, in case you were wondering if there were any real business book concepts worse than any of the ones I made up, why yes there is.

‘Following the example of Jesus, a “CEO” who built a disorganized “staff” of twelve into a thriving enterprise.’

I’m no theologist, but … is that blasphemy? Judge for yourself, don’t all buy it at once.

* I was quite shocked to discover Foursquare is still alive and thriving. They’ve gone undercover and are silently stalking every move you make.

**In the biz context, obviously How To Win Friends isn’t a literary classic, by all means read actual classics if you have massive spare time but good luck getting through those page-long paragraphs.

This article originally appeared on Ian’s blog, Motivation for Sceptics. Read the original here.

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Ian Whitworth

Ian Whitworth is a reformed branding and advertising creative director turned entrepreneur, who co-founded corporate audiovisual company Scene Change.