A near infinite supply of gurus can be found, on any imaginable subject, with just a few keyword searches. A new kind of celebrity is now being minted, not built on athletic ability, or traditional performance talent like singing or acting. These self-help gurus rise to prominence based on on the presentation and promotion of their ideas. They capture the imagination of an audience that see the system, process, or framework they offer as a path to a better future.
After reading the work of many of these people, and now contributing my own thoughts to this arena, I started thinking deeply about how we can effectively consume this kind of information.
A book on the New York Times Bestseller list holds no more “secrets” once it has reached that level of success.
In order to assess the personal value of a book for yourself, there are a few important questions to ask:
1. Valuable how?
2. Valuable to whom?
3. Am I looking for Tactics or Principles?
Just because a lot of people are excited about a book, doesn’t mean it has inherent practical value. A rush of excited fans just proves that the book has high entertainment value and most of us Americans are perfectly willing to part with a regular percentage of our disposable income for the express purpose of being entertained. Assuming the knowledge inherent in a tell-all retrospective book holds actionable value above and beyond being entertaining, then that value will probably only be accessible to a small amount of readers who are actually in a position to convert that knowledge to money.
Valuable to Whom?
The author of a “Here is how I became rich in ______ and you can too!” kind of book, was likely a pioneer in whatever activity they wrote about, so a large part of their success probably came from their first-mover advantage. Early copycats also have a high likelihood of success, because no single brand can appeal to all people. A simple change in the look and feel of an offer can capture a meaningful amount of additional market share. When the late majority enters the market, we find it much harder to duplicate the process described by a bestseller, when there are so many other eager, earnest readers also trying their hand at the game. This was the experience of the masses of eager investors all across the country — hoping to buy cheap foreclosed houses on courthouse steps after reading any number of books on effortless real estate investing on the late 90s and early 2000s. They found the courthouse steps exceedingly crowded!
Tactics v. Principles
As you curate your reading list, I invite you to consider an important distinction: Tactics v. Principles. Our examples so far are all in the realm of Tactics -step by step moves in the marketplace that turn effort into money, like buying real estate on the courthouse steps, or building an online following. Tactics are important because they are what we actually do, and we need to be doing something in order to eventually achieve results. Tactics necessarily change over time. Once enough competitors become aware of a tactic, that tactic becomes common knowledge and the value of the action quickly diminishes. Think about the early days of the telephone, when salespeople first realized that they could simply dial through the phone book and offer their products to consumers, rather than trudge door to door. Consumers were so enamored with their new home telephone lines, they were probably excited to answer the phone every time it rang. Of course like most good things, the tactic was eventually overused. With the development of Caller ID and the Do Not Call List, cold-calling as a tactic now has a smaller margin of usefulness than the early days.
If Tactics inform how we act, then Principles inform how we think. Principles are timeless and the truly great ones operate more like Laws — to be broken only at risk of extreme peril. Every effective Tactic is built from powerful Principles. Integrity for instance, holds timeless value free from competition — it doesn’t matter how many people are already practicing Integrity, you will still find guaranteed and immediate value in using the Principle.
I assert that Tactics discovered at a low cost, or from a mass market source, have likely already experienced the kind of decrease in value that a new car does the moment it is driven off the lot. If millions of people could easily read about a tactic in a free post or low cost book, then assume they have. If enough people have already implemented the tactic, the value of you throwing your hat in the ring as well is likely diminished.
I think the most worthwhile kind of tactical knowledge to pursue is that which is obtained at a high enough cost to ensure that the knowledge stays rare enough to maintain its value to you. Principles on the other hand are valuable wherever they are encountered, because their utility does not diminish with use.
Tactics are fun to read about, and fun to write about too — I certainly couldn’t help but deliver some tactical advice in Cape Not Required. As you consume media, or seek knowledge, I would simply encourage you to consider whether a Tactic or a Principle is being presented to you, and weigh the usefulness of your new information accordingly.