What do the best-selling business and self-help books have in common?
They share an audience composed of people whose mantra is “Give me actionable advice or I won’t read it.”
That’s a problem for two different reasons.
Looking for actionable advice means dependency, it means an inability, or more likely, an unwillingness to spend time thinking for yourself.
One of the books that has changed my life is Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. But it has no succinct formula for me to take away, no cute acronym. It can’t be neatly summarised in a few pages (I’ve tried). Nassim unloads all these ideas and concepts and then leaves you to deal with them however you please.
Which means that I had to use my own mind to digest what he said, to understand why he said it, to determine which parts are applicable to my situation and which parts are not, to think about whether I agree and decide what I’m going to do with all of it.
Do you see why that’s so much more advantageous, and so much more powerful, than having a pretty formula handed to me on a plate (Jonah Berger and your STEPPS model from Contagious, I’m looking at you)?
You don’t have to work for “actionable advice”. It’s given to you. There’s no investment on your part. You don’t have to expend any energy coming up with an application for what you’ve read or learnt because the author has done that for you. Which means that it is instantly de-valued.
Usually, the author and the publisher thinks they’re doing you a favour by doing this, by laying it all out for you. They’re not. They’re depriving you of a chance to exercise your own creativity.
(Read this article by Scott Young, who completed the 4 year MIT Computer Science curriculum in 1 year, for a deeper dive into why figuring stuff out for yourself matters.)
Which leads to the second, more insidious problem with actionable advice.
When someone figures something out for you, you’re probably not going to spend the time coming up with a different framework for application.
But what if the author is wrong? What if the author, who has taken all of his experience and research and compressed it into his conclusion, hasn’t done it well?
You see, not only is avoiding actionable advice good for your mind, it’s good because you might come up with something better. You might take the same knowledge and same stories and same evidence and come up with a completely novel solution or interpretation.
You, seeing the same collection of information, may come up with a different, better, more effective answer.
There are two stages to innovation. The first in invention. The second is implementation. The second stage doesn’t come immediately after the first, and it’s not usually performed by the original inventor.
Apply that to books. The author is attempting to invent a new concept or framework, and then tell you how to implement it. History shows us that this is never the most effective way. The best implementations don’t come from the original inventor. They come from someone who takes the inventor’s work, and applies it in a way they could never have imagined.
So next time someone gives you a formula or a blueprint, look at it, mine it for useful information, and then scrap it. Pretend they haven’t told you what to do and instead, use your own mind to figure out what to do with what they’ve shown you.
Who knows, you might come up with something better.