Reading The Art of War is a Waste of Time (Unless you do this one weird trick)

Some books feel valuable and contribute value. Other books feel valuable and don’t actually add any value. I’ve found that there’s a pattern: the more concrete the ideas in the book the more helpful they will be.

The Useful

Start Small Stay Small has a number of very specific pieces of advice (e.g. when determining whether Google Ads is a viable growth channel you should use the following (totally intuitive) formula:

(Maximum Cost per Click) < (Cost of Product) * (Conversion Rate)

A good conversion rate is between .5% and 4% (higher as the price of what you’re selling gets lower), by the way.

You can use that.

The Useless

Have you ever read The Art of War? It’s full of gems like:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

And that seems like it could be useful.

Biographies and memoirs are full of this stuff.

After reading a few of these books and feeling that they were useful but noticing that they weren’t, I made a note to stop reading them. After all, what’s the point of reading a book if you aren’t getting anything out of it (I wasn’t reading these for pleasure)?

The Insight

Recently, I had a realization:

For knowledge to be useful two things have to be true.

  1. The knowledge has to be actionable.
  2. You actually have to recall the knowledge when it’s relevant.

When you’re thinking about getting more customers you’ll think of marketing. When you think of marketing you’ll think of Google Adwords. When you think of Google Adwords you’ll remember the insight from Start Small Stay Small - or at least you’ll remember that there was a formula and you’ll look it up.

On the other hand, when you’re in a situation where the most important thing you can remember is:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”

Are you likely to remember it? Probably not.

For those of us trying to leverage the wisdom of those who came before us, what’s the actionable move here?

The Move

  1. Collect all the wisdom.
  2. Recognize when you have a decision to make.
  3. Consult each piece of wisdom and see if it’s relevant to your situation.

This is what I call the “exhaustive and exhausting approach to applied wisdom” and I’m thinking pretty seriously about trying it.

The tedium of it is likely to bar the vast majority of people from ever doing it, but that’s less competition for us, right?

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