Business books are full of shit.

Joan Westenberg
@westenberg
Published in
2 min readMay 17, 2024

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The business book Industrial Complex would have us believe that the keys to success are hiding in plain sight. For just $29.95, we can unlock the secrets of billionaire CEOs and visionary founders. But the truth is, most of these books offer little more than survivorship bias masquerading as insight.

If you want to understand the forces that shape industries that make or break companies, you’re better off looking to the past than the airport bookstore. Take The Guns of August, for example. Barbara Tuchman’s masterful account of the opening months of World War I is ostensibly a history book, but it’s also a deep dive into decision-making under uncertainty, the perils of poor communication, and the outsized impact of random events.

You’ll find far more applicable wisdom in those pages than in a whole library of business books. You’ll see how small miscalculations can spiral into catastrophe, how entrenched ways of thinking can blind us to impending disruption, and how even the most meticulously crafted plans can crumble in the face of reality.

The lessons of history are the true secrets to business success. They teach us about human nature, the cyclical nature of markets, and the unintended consequences of innovation. They remind us that the fundamental challenges remain the same no matter how much the world changes.

The next time you’re tempted to reach for the latest hyped-up business title, consider picking up a biography of a great leader, a historical account of a pivotal moment, or even a sweeping novel that captures the spirit of an era. The most valuable business lessons were never meant to be business lessons at all.

Fact: I learned more from The Guns of August than I ever did from a stack of startup playbooks.

And I suspect that if more leaders spent their time studying the rhythms of history instead of the habits of “highly effective people,” we’d all be better off.

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