If you’re like most business owners, you believe reading good quality non-fiction business books is always a good thing. And you undoubtably have a big stack of books you need to get to.
If that’s you, this article is going to make you question everything.
You’ve probably been reading business books wrong and missing out on the value they offer.
The way it works for most people is simple: Read a business book – be it abstract principles or detailed tactics – and start implementing them.
Entrepreneurs read books to learn. And we learn in order to get better results. Faster.
So you grab a book (or how-to guide) and put it to work. So that you can do better. Get there faster. Skip the mistakes. The idea is to learn easily from the hard-won learnings the author already made.
The only problem is that it never works out:
Everything about this flow chart is completely broken
Entrepreneurs don’t really learn this way. Entrepreneurship can’t be taught this way.
Entrepreneurship can’t be taught in school. That’s not a controversial idea.
We laugh at the idea of attempting to lay out a guaranteed path to startup (or bootstrap) success in a dusty textbook or classroom.
We know deep down that—even if you can write the principles out—the heart and spirit of entrepreneurship only comes from doing. You know: The School of Hard Knocks. Street smarts are better than book smarts. Blah blah blah…
That’s why here at Commit Action our #1 ultimate principle is:
Execution is everything
And I know what you’ll say next…
“But I DO execute on the insights I read in books!”
But here’s the thing: In the 1970s we humans figured out – via some brilliant research – the truth about how people learn. Turns out there’s two types of knowledge:
Tacit Knowledge and Explicit Knowledge.
Explicit Knowledge is the stuff they teach in school. It’s things you can consciously study for, with your highlighters and your post-it notes. It’s things you can memorize into your mental encyclopedia.
Tacit Knowledge is the type of knowledge that is next to impossible to communicate to another person verbally, or by writing it down. It’s the “you have to know it your bones” wisdom. It can only be learned by doing. “Earned” might be a better word.
Entrepreneurship is ALL Tacit Knowledge
Tacit Knowledge is built – at the psychological level – through a cyclic action of discovery that looks like this:
Golf is a metaphor, of course. This diagram is actually the engine of entrepreneurial wisdom attainment.
It’s how you learn the deep truths about business. It’s how you level up your ability to make the right moves for your company. It’s how you win.
The problem with book learnin’
(I’m facetiously using that apostrophe to imply that I’m a book-hating illiterate. Here’s a quote from Aristotle just so you know I’m kidding…)
"For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
Books are great. They’re great for entrepreneurs.
The problem is the phase – in the flow of learning/doing diagrammed above – in which entrepreneurs are reading their books.
Like the first diagram in this article suggests, business owners are picking up books as a starting point. They’re beginning with learning, with abstract principles and/or actionable tactics.
Starting with a book is a mistake
As an entrepreneur, you can enter the cycle of discovery – aka the wisdom & street smarts learning vortex – at either of these three places:
When you begin with Active Experimentation, you’re basically playing with ideas in such a curious and playful way you don’t even feel like an entrepreneur. This is how product-focused “civilians” become entrepreneurs: It’s the person tinkering in their garage because they’re damn sure they can cobble together a better electric toothbrush (or whatever) for themselves.
They play (actively experiment) and then hit a great idea – or what they think is one – which graduates them to the next phase of the cycle.
You can also begin with Concrete Experience though. This happens to industry execs who spend years gaining deep expertise in their field and then start companies of their own to solve the problems they’ve grown to deeply understand. When they finally decide to make the leap into entrepreneurship, it’s their real (concrete!) experience of knowing what’s up in their space… that often makes the business a big win.
You can start at Abstract Conceptualization too. It’s where you sit around intellectually thinking about what’d be cool to create as an entrepreneur. This is pie-in-the-sky, pipe-dream ideation stuff. I think it’s the highest risk (most likely to fail) way to dive into entrepreneurship, but occasionally – like most high risk pursuits – people who start companies this way end up winning big. Like, billion dollar big.
Reflective Observation isn’t an option
Only three out of four points on the vortex diagram work as launch pads. You can’t START a business at the Reflective Observation phase.
If you have a business, you can’t genuinely start an idea – for even a product, a project or even a marketing campaign – at Reflective Observation.
Reflective Observation is the phase you should READ in.
The thing entrepreneurs get wrong about reading is the idea that a book should be the genesis of a new idea, or a new shortcut.
The best business books – and arguably all of them – serve as powerful lenses to hyper-focus the quality of your ability to reflect intelligently.
What are you reflecting on? The ideas you had (Abstract Conceptualization), the action you took (Active Experimentation) and the feedback the market gave you (Concrete Experience).
The Reflective Observation phase is super important. It’s where the other three categories mesh and mentally percolate. It’s where the real, genuine “aha moments” occur. It’s where entrepreneurial success progresses not in small steps, but in giant leaps.
The problem with business books and the act of “business reading” is that it tries to start you there.
You know exactly what I’m talking about because you’ve felt it: Reading revolutionary books that stimulate those “aha” epiphany moments… only to find (months later) that nothing really changed in your life or business.
The reason those epiphanies are completely empty is precisely because you’re reading the wrong way. You’re trying to jumpstart the vortex of entrepreneur-wisdom-attainment by starting with the good (fun) part first.
You’re trying to shortcut the system. And it never works.
Good news: The solution is simple
Do not read with the intention of learning new stuff to do. That’s not how you’ll win.
Instead, read to get perspective on your past – the action you’ve already taken – in order to realize deep truths that help you decide what to do next.
That’s how you win. It works infinitely better this way.
The world needs more great business ideas to succeed. It needs more smart entrepreneurs.
And that means the world desperately needs more people—who haven’t done anything yet—to put down the books and start doing.
The big secret is simply: You have to take action. First.
You have to start with doing. Any one of those three categories will work as a jumping off point. Hitting all three of them is even better.
It’s only then that reading books will revolutionize your success as an entrepreneur. Books are for reflective observation.
Execution is everything. And it comes first.