Common knowledge

Reading books about business, innovation, leadership or marketing that have been specifically written about those subjects has become something that I generally refuse to do. Why? Because those books are, in my experience, mostly rehashing the same ideas over and over again. Be passionate, they tell you. Think positive thoughts. Innovate and change the world. It blows me away how many of these books say the exact same things, yet sell millions of copies - and usually to the same crowd that bought the last version of it!

What’s worse, these books end up becoming so commonly read that reading them ends up being more of a right of passage into an industry than a source of any kind of new and/or useful information. One example that comes to mind is Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. I haven’t read this book, but I can tell you that I’ve heard it mentioned both online and in person at tech events more times than I can count. Everyone’s startup is so lean now, and devoted followers of the doctrine can be found in every tech center on Earth. I’m not saying this book is bad or anything (as I mentioned, I haven’t read it), but at what point does a book’s ideas become so saturated that taking the time to read it becomes a waste?

At this point, I’m not convinced that reading The Lean Startup would be a good use of my time. So many companies are using its ideas and so many founders are willing to scream all of its finest points from mountaintops that I’m pretty sure I can just pick up the jist of it by hanging out with startup people.

The solution

So what should someone who is genuinely interested in these sorts of topics do? My method is to take a moment and consider who would be able to give real insight into a topic without advertising themselves as a guru.

Sales

Sales an extremely important subject in business, and most books about sales are garbage. There’s always talk about delivering value, creating relationships, becoming a closer, and so on. Not that any of these are bad ideas, they’re just done to death at this point. But there is a group of people who most would never consider looking into when seeking out gems about sales. This group builds relationships with people, only to deliver…absolutely nothing. These are people who sell absolutely nothing - except maybe dreams. I’m talking, of course, about conmen.

Quite a few people would be revolted at the idea of trying to pluck any sort of useful information from such a loathsome group, but before you get upset and accuse me of being a fan of conmen, take a moment to consider what I’m telling you. Yes, they are criminals and they deserve the hatred they get from the public at large. They’re also masters of quickly making friends with strangers and selling big ideas to them successfully. Masters can pick out a prime target (a customer for their “business”, so to speak), wag their tongue a bit and then walk away with a large amount of cash. Even though you might not admit it publicly, you probably wish you had that ability - especially if you’re trying to raise money for a business.

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One of my favorite conmen to read about is Victor Lustig. His career was legendary, bordering almost on the level of myth. His primary scheme for years involved selling people a “money-printing machine” that spit out $100 bills. He’d prime it with a few Benjamins to demonstrate to his marks that it did indeed print money, even if it did take a few hours each time. The victim would then hand over somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 (this was the early 20th century, by the way) and, several hours later (after Lustig was long gone), the machine would start pushing out blank pieces of paper.

But the absolute craziest bit of salesmanship he ever pulled off was selling the Eiffel Tower. In the mid-1920s, the French government was having a hard time maintaining the Eiffel Tower and said so publicly. Maintenance costs were piling up and basic work like painting it was causing budgetary woes. Never one to miss an opportunity, Lustig contacted a few local scrap metal dealers and called a meeting. When he arrived, he informed the attendees that he was a government servant, sent to secretly sell off the Eiffel Tower for scrap to the highest bidder. His con was so complete that he even added a request for a bribe into the proceedings - because, as a master salesman, he knew that Parisian government workers were underpaid and it would be highly suspect not to ask for a kickback.

Lustig walked away with a suitcase full of cash and his victim, Andre Poisson, amazingly never went to the police. Poisson, an insecure and gullible man, was Lustig’s target all along and figured he would be too humiliated by the experience to report it to anyone.

Was this scam immoral? Absolutely. Is it also chock full of lessons about sales, marketing and psychology? Yes, it most certainly is. If you want to read about Victor Lustig and a many other con artists, I recommend you check out The Big Con by David Maurer. It was written quite a while ago, but the stories and lessons are still relevant for anyone who wants to see unfiltered human nature.

Leading organizations

Another topic chock-full of terrible books is leadership. The idea of leadership itself is incredibly nebulous in the world of business, but like other related subjects it often sees books with nearly identical messages. Work hard, be passionate, push for innovation, yadda yadda yadda.

My favorite leadership books are ones where the stakes are much higher than money. Take, for example, the military. When a general is incompetent, people get killed - period. That’s why there’s so much to be learned by looking at how military leaders (both good and bad) do their jobs. I recently read a book called The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks that explores how the structure of America’s high-ranking officer corps has shaped American foreign policy and military effectiveness.

It reaches a fairly bleak conclusion about America’s military today (mostly centered around how uncreative “team players” are the ones who advance), and yet there is a great deal of insight to be gained from reading such a book. America’s army during WW2, which went from being second-rate to defeating the Axis powers in a few short years, offers some great examples of how a complex organization can work effectively to solve problems. Reading about the failures of the following generations of generals brings to light some excellent lessons as well, particularly when people like General William Westmoreland are discussed. His personal and professional failures almost single-handedly led to America’s defeat in Vietnam.

One incredibly vivid illustration of this came in the form of a story about General Westmoreland and the way he played tennis. At one point, he started playing against a subordinate - a colonel - who was much better than him and beat him regularly. After a few wallopings, General Westmoreland had his assistant call the colonel and tell him to start losing more often. This was the man in charge of thousands of young soldiers, and he was not only petty, he didn’t even have the backbone to make that ridiculous phone call himself. Anyone who is leading an organization (or wants to lead one someday) should take note of stories like this. Behavior like this should be classified as unacceptable, and anyone that acts in such a way should not be given any modicum of responsibility, much less the leading role in an organization that is involved with the incredibly serious and deadly business of war.

Failure

Success is what people seem most interested in reading about, but what about failure? It is, by far, more informative than stories of unheralded success. This is especially true if you take a look at stories that involve failures within large organizations. A book I read not too long ago that fits this mold is Breaking the Mishap Chain, an examination of several major accidents from NASA flight test programs. In many cases, the failure starts at the organizational level and filters down into a test pilot’s cockpit, sometimes costing him his life.

Once again, the stakes here are much higher than just money. When a flight test goes wrong, people can and do die. It makes burning through a VC’s money look pretty tame in comparison. What’s more, this book has a special extra dimension that made it even more valuable. The preface to each of these stories included biographies of everyone involved in the flights, and, in almost every single case, they were considered the best possible person to do the job. One story about a fatal crash during the B-1 flight test program stated that one of the people killed was “the best in the world” at his job. He forgot to flip a single switch during landing, and it cost him his life. Again, this was the best guy for the job on the entire planet, and it only took one minor mistake to create a tragedy. It’s a humbling reminder that even the best make mistakes, and that successful and talented people need to avoid complacency at all costs.

Conclusion

The bottom line is this: if you want to get the kinds of informational treasures that will give you a leg up, don’t read what everyone else is reading. Anything that either is or is becoming common knowledge can be helpful, but will ultimately let you down when you want to see what others can’t.

-Ace