Entrepreneuriship Is Best Learned Experientially: Why Most Business Books (Still) Suck

I recently replied to a Quora entry which asked, “What are the best business-related books?” I shared my humble opinion that entrepreneurs should spend less time reading and more time experiencing reality. I concluded by including a link to an entry I wrote entitled, The Author’s Dilemma - Why Business Books Suck.

The person asking the question subsequently replied that I was “ignorant” and missing out on a great learning opportunity by not reading. Although the response was somewhat rude, it was valuable, as it caused me to think a bit more deeply about this issue.

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Touching a StoveTo set the record straight, I am an avid reader, although I seldom read business books. The point I was inarticulately attempting to make is was that the greater the distance between you and a particular experience, the less impactful and relevant the experience becomes.

Take, for instance, the proverbial child touching a hot stove. The lesson is ingrained in the child because it is visceral, undiluted and immediate. Compare this first-hand learning experience with: (i) someone animatedly telling you about the time they touched a hot stove, versus, (ii) reading about someone else’s hot stove experience, versus (iii) reading about a second-hand account of a hot stove incident. The further you are from the pain, the less meaningful, instructive and relevant the cause of the pain.

This same phenomenon occurs when emerging entrepreneurs read business books. To a greater or lesser degree, depending on the author’s intimacy with the recounted experiences, the time it takes to passively read about someone else’s experiences would be more effectively spent interacting with others who have relevant, real-world knowledge that they are willing to interactively share.

Consider the following chart, which describes the most-to-least impactful ways to learn entrepreneurial skills.

Impact on Entrepreneurs

Business Books Redux

To be fair, business books suck in a relativistic way. Given an emerging entrepreneur’s limited discretionary time, I believe you will generally learn more by engaging in entrepreneurial tasks and working closely with experienced Advisors than by passively absorbing anecdotes from a book.

In my reply to the “you are ignorant” Quora comment, I clarified that successful entrepreneurs love learning and that the desire to expand their intellectual horizons is often the impetuous for launching new ventures. I went on to explain that the key to entrepreneurial learning is to identify the most relevant and impactful experiential sources and to leverage them in the most efficient manner.

There is no doubt that business books can be entertaining and, in some cases, enlightening. However, irrespective of how many business books you read, you cannot “study” your way to entrepreneurial proficiency. Entrepreneurship is a physical sport, not a cerebral one.

During your various adVentures’ journeys, you will touch a lot of hot stoves, get a few scars and have numerous fun and fulfilling experiences along the way. I describe some tactics for making the most of your experiences here: Five Ways To Maximize Your Startup Experiences.

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Copyright © 2007-11 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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