Clueless 2.0

My friend Larry and I were talking on the phone last night and the subject of general cluelessness came up. I argued that the popularity of the personal finance genre is explainable by the same logic as the diet book and self-help book genres. They are targeted at people utterly lacking in self-awareness or common sense. If they had either of those traits, they would not need such books because the wisdom imparted stems from exactly those two areas.

For those of you who wish to save yourself oodles of money, here is Bill Brown’s quick guide to wealth, weight management, and happiness:

  • Spend less money than you make and save the difference in something that either earns interest or doesn’t generally entail a loss.
  • Eat less and exercise more.
  • To be happy, define your values and work towards achieving them. Further happiness comes from establishing which values are more important than others and not wasting time on the lesser values when you could be pursuing the higher ones.

Okay then, now you know those secrets—though you probably did already. The question you’re probably asking yourself is “Why are these books so popular then? Is everyone that foolish?” These books are popular for four reasons:

  1. It’s very difficult to assess the central theme of a book that is several hundred pages in length and chock full of impressive sounding words.
  2. It seems like such weighty, important matters should require more explanation than my short guide.
  3. People see other people who are rich, thin, and happy and figure that there must be some secret to it that they can’t divine.
  4. This secret is probably much easier than the common sense way, which seems like a lot of work over a not inconsiderable length of time.

There isn’t any mystery to it. Sure there are people who achieve wealth, fitness, and joy without having to work really hard at it. Those are exceptional cases and they certainly didn’t need (or could even benefit from) a book to get them there. It’s hard work, but there is little in life that doesn’t require effort and people must simply accept that fact instead of stubbornly resisting reality.

Today I came across a press release from Business 2.0 that reminded me that management books are another genre that I can add to the Bridge For Sale Library. Moby Dick, arguably a good book, is not really helpful to management except insofar as it suggests that you can really burn yourself out trying to achieve an impossible goal. That’s generally helpful advice, but common sense suggests that without the need to read an early-nineteenth-century novel—it’s a rare manager who would be willing to read a novel, much less a literary classic. Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is, I think, a bit too philosophical of a stretch for most to apply directly to their jobs. His contention that science is a series of disjointed paradigm shifts bears little utility to the issues of management except that it features one of their favorite impressive buzzwords. Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 The Theory of the Leisure Class is hardly the seminal work in marketing and is quite dated for today’s dynamic economy.

What did they shun? Atlas Shrugged is a great book for businessmen because it enshrines reason as the driving force of business and suggests that wealth is not something to be minimized. It takes the “greed is good” bromide and provides the context in which that statement is poignant and valid. Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence started the entire genre (getting a pass because of that primacy) and communicates an excellent formula for a successful business. Both these books are precisely what executives need to understand what they should be doing and why they should feel good about their jobs. In the era of Enron and Worldcom, the advice within would serve as an excellent start for a new age of management.

[UPDATE: P.J. O’Rourke has an interesting take on this very phenomenon in an interview with The Onion: “People love to be told what they know already. It’s not so much that what they say is wrong, though Ann Coulter does seem to be completely crazy. [Laughs.] But it’s kind of like reading The Power Of Positive Thinking, or any other advice or how-to book. All they do is reassure people of their basic opinions, and then they can continue to act like they’ve always acted. I’d say it’s time to move on to something else, but I don’t know what it would be.” There may be something to that notion; I’ll have to think about it some.]

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