How To Spot Bullshit Business Books.

BY JON WESTENBERG

We all like to be inspired. That’s a universal truth, we all like to hear, see and engage in things that allow us to experience a paradigm shift or encourage a change in our thinking. It gives us a certain degree of motivation, and it can mean the difference between giving up on what we want to do and persevering.

But there’s an industry of inspiration. An industry that thrives on badly written and often vapid truisms that just aren’t useful. An industry of books.

There are some great books on business out there. And the good ones are easy to recognise. They’re well written, well thought out and highly practical. If you’ve ever read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, you’ll know that’s the benchmark. Same goes for The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz. When you read books like that, there’s enough hard learning and clear, actionable techniques to guide any dedicated business through validation and product development.

The bad ones are a whole other breed. Spend a good 10 minutes browsing the Business or Management sections of any larger book store and you’ll uncover tomes of knowledge that are priced around $50 and will never help you grow a business. They’re full of crap. They’re overblown, over-hyped and full of useless anecdotes that have very little to do with real advice and actionable lessons. They’re the literature equivalent of cheap stock photos full of old dudes in suits.

Most of these books, I categorise as Cheese Relocation Management Spell Books. They use all kinds of analogies that are intended to make executives spend a bucket-load of money on consultants and seminars. And they have about as much hard data and insight as a fictional wizard’s spell books.

When you read them, you find old school corporate “synergy” speak dressed up in innovation’s clothing. Give up on them, and give up on them early. Here’s how to spot them:

Analogies and metaphors instead of case studies and data. Great books will cover, in detail, the real-life business cases that the author’s management, economic or start-up theories are based on. The bad books will try and use imaginative and wise sounding stories or analogies to laboriously illustrate their points. It’s complicated, vague and sounds incredibly wise whilst not giving any direction worth a dime.

Name dropping instead of citing results or researching. If every management consultant who’s ever written a book was truly contracted by Microsoft, we’d have to wonder if Redmond has stopped hiring people internally. Look, I’m not calling anyone out here, but it shouldn’t matter in the first place. If an author wants to convince me of their credentials they’re going to have to do more than show me a resume. They need to either demonstrate that they are experts in their field or show me the results of their work. Carley Fiorina, I’m looking at you — being CEO of HP counts for nada when the results of your work are publicly available. If you ever write a book, don’t expect me to read it.

Management-speak instead of plain language. Synergy is not a thing people. It’s just not. It means nothing and it says nothing. Unfortunately, it’s just one of a hundred words or phrases that sound super business-y but don’t really express a point or help to explain important concepts. When the business book you’re reading relies on these words either for filler or because the writer doesn’t know how to express themselves without spouting crap, you’re wasting your time.

Fool-proof formulas or “Silver Bullets” instead of real lessons. There’s no short cut in life or business. There’s no easy path to success, and if a book is trying to sell you one, or trying to teach you the formula to Google’s rise, you’d have a more productive afternoon tearing it into pipe lighters than reading it.


If you want to find some books that are really going to help you start and run a business, there’s an easy way to go about it. Product Hunt is full of some carefully curated book collections that will get you started. Try checking out These Books Will Make You Smarter. Read ’em and learn. If you spend your time reading shitty business management books, it’s not going to get you anywhere. The industry of inspiration isn’t a bad thing in itself — but it’s like any industry. Some of the products are crap.

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