I own at least 50 different business books. (I’ve even read “most of” most of them.)
And this, in itself, is the trouble with most business books. You can read the first 60% (sometimes, even the first 40%) and get the gist for how the rest of the book will go.
This is a terrible track record.
Just imagine if we’d be okay with reading only 60% of some of our favorite novels out there. If you only read the first 60% of 1984, for instance, you’d never get to the juiciest, crunches, darkest bits in the end that make you wonder about your life and the meaning of everything. Or imagine reading 60% of Moby Dick, getting the gist (“Got it. He’s chasing a whale.”), and just putting it down. Will he or won’t he? It’s no longer of interest to you.
We’d never make it through high school English class if we only read the first 60% of To Kill a Mockingbird, nor would we learn the hard truths it has to teach us in the end. In Romeo and Juliet, reading only the first 60% might lead us into thinking that making rash romantic decisions has absolutely no consequences whatsoever. And just think how many millions of dollars of swag, merchandise, and movie production costs would have been saved, had none of us cared enough to see the ending of all seven Harry Potter book.
You might be saying, well, these are two totally different things. Fiction books tell stories and business books give advice.
I’d argue that the inverse is actually true. Fiction books give advice through stories, and business books tell stories to give advice.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
The business book anecdote
Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
So there’s a guy running a company who stepped into a crazy bad situation at his workplace. We’re talking — no money, no product, and everybody at work was about ten seconds away from quitting. His entire life savings, his pride, and his mortgage was on the line to get this right. But what could he do?
If you were in this guy’s shoes, you might have given up. You might have thought to yourself, “This is a losing battle. There’s no way to recover this unrecoverable business and make sure all of these people have jobs building a product people actually want.”
But that’s not what this guy did. At the next all-staff meeting, he pulled everyone into the room and seated them down in rows, like usual. Many of them, on that Monday, were in tears. They thought their jobs and their livelihoods were over. They thought they would go home hungry that night.
“Okay,” said that guy, with a scant smile. “Look under your chairs.”
And under everyone’s chair was a piece of a business plan that he’d been working on for six months straight, every night and weekend. He’d consulted with outside experts, called every official in town, and rallied all of their customers together to design the perfect solution. “We can do this, we just have to work together,” said that guy.
“But what about the money it will take to run this business?” asked the employee who’s always difficult.
“Look under your chair again,” said the guy. And there was a three million-dollar check.
So you see, anything is possible with a little bit of a dramatic flair.
Here’s the thing about stories like this: It doesn’t really change the way you might behave at work tomorrow. It just reminds you that you’re nowhere near as clever or resourceful as that guy.
It also gives us so little context into the boiled-down version of the actions and events that it’s nearly impossible to emphasize with these characters. Sure, we get that times were tough. We get that people were sad. But that’s about the same amount of engagement I feel from reading any story in the newspaper. We can do better than this.
What we can learn from Harry Potter
Think of how much we learn about love and friendship and perseverance through reading a book like Harry Potter. Let’s use a super relatable example of a narrative structure used well in this book and how it taught us about character motivations and reliability. (And okay, I’m going to say something here that may shock you if for some reason you’re one of the three remaining people on Earth who hasn’t read Harry Potter yet. If that’s you, then stop reading now.)
Spoiler alert: Dumbledore dies.
Not just dies, but Snape kills him. In cold blood. Right there, on the balcony with his wand. While Harry is watching.
For me, this was one of those moments in literature that really came to define how I looked at life, death, love, and friendship. I read this book super early on in my life, while I was still a sponge for information, and it may have been one of the first characters outside of a Disney movie that I came to love who was then taken away from me. Of course, we get over this, yes. But then we also learn from it. And we learn how much of a badass Harry Potter becomes afterward — we know exactly why Harry needs to avenge his death. We know about his parents and their deaths, and we understand, even if we will never truly relate, to the reasons why he has to ultimately take on all of the horcruxes, destroy them, and eventually go toe-to-to with the evil Voldemort.
Part of the beauty of this sequence is that it takes a lifetime to get there. Seven books and over 1 million words in all. Was the payoff worth it? Just look to how much the Harry Potter franchise is worth, and you tell me.
Now, let’s try one more thing. I’m going to tell the Harry Potter story in a business book inspired anecdote. Ready? Here we go:
Harry Potter as a business book case study:
In this local school district, the unthinkable happened: The headmaster was murdered. Not only that, but the murderer remained at large. The remaining faculty and students had all the signs of early onset panic, not to mention questions from parents at home and the unrelenting press inquiries. In the 1,000 years since Hogwarts has been the pre-eminent wizarding institution, it was this murder that might put it all at risk. What could they do?
But, as we’ve discussed earlier in this book, sometimes the greatest leaders emerge from the least likely of places. In the end, it wouldn’t be the headmaster-in-training or any other senior faculty who would reclaim the honor and dignity of this venerable institution, but a boy.
You see, this boy had a decade’s worth of anger and revenge building up in him about murders like this. His parents had also been murdered, and, particularly early on in his school years, he was called out regularly for “being different.” (He had a peculiar scar above his forehead and a strange connection to snakes.) It turned out that, over the years, this boy, Harry, had established something similar to a paternal relationship with Albus Dumbledore. And Albus had, in turn, been teaching Harry, too.
When Dumbledore was murdered, Harry rallied his friends together and committed them to a pact. They met in secret, practicing illegal spells on school property and training for a potential future battle. Eventually, these friendships, and the skills they acquired together, saved the school from the battle of the millennium, thereby saving the school, and most of those inside.
This is why it’s important to always encourage the “kids who are just a little bit different.” You never know who will have a chip on their shoulder big enough to save your entire world one day.
Something tells me this wouldn’t quite rally the same kind of emotional turbulence inside that would get people dressing up like wizards and taking quizzes about which sorting house they belong inside for decades to come.
Maybe the trouble with business books isn’t that they aren’t telling stories. Maybe it’s just that we aren’t telling them the right way.
Also published on Medium.