Frames and Heuristics (or how I learned to love non-fiction books again)

For most of my life, my natural instinct has always been to turn to books when I am looking for answers.

And I still feel the pull when I see a title like “10x Is Easier than 2x: How World-Class Entrepreneurs Achieve More by Doing Less” or “Your Next Five Moves: Master the Art of Business Strategy”.

But in the past years I’ve started to develop a distaste for non-fiction books.

I’ve come to realize that most non-fiction books are nothing but insight porn.

They are filled with interesting ideas and stories but don’t provide any actionable advice. And when they do, it’s becoming painfully obvious that the authors never practiced what they preach as soon as you try to apply it in the real world.

So for a while, I’ve stopped reading non-fiction books altogether.

I focused 100% on building my business and learning from real world experience. And to be honest, it did not feel like I was missing out on anything.

But when I recently went through some old notes and things I’ve written I discovered an interesting pattern.

Every piece of advice that I ever got that turned out to be truly useful fell into one of just two categories: frames and heuristics.

And maybe that’s not too surprising. The odds that someone has specific tactical advice for your unique situation are pretty slim. And the odds of finding such advice in a book are virtually zero.

Everything changes much too fast right now. The only person who would be able to give you such advice is someone who has been in your exact situation very recently before.

Say, you’re looking for advice on how to build the team at your marketing agency.

You can discard any specific piece of tactical advice published more than two years ago straight away.

Two years ago ChatGPT did not exist. Overeymploment was not a widespread phenomenon. Talent pools like in the Philippines were still untapped.

As a result, none of the strategies that worked back then will work today.

But anyone who’s still in the trenches will most likely be too busy to write a book about it.

So we can give up our hopes of finding usauble specific tactical advice.

But what we can do is to look for frames and heuristics.

While everything changes all the time at rapid speed, heuristics like always start with the hardest part, make everything as simple as possible but not any simpler, or when in doubt talk to people will always be useful.

Take “The Game” by Neil Strauss for instance. One might be tempted to dismiss it as frivolous because it contains weird tactical advice on hooking up with women.

But among the sea of tactics, there lies an incredible gem of a frame: rejection isn’t bad; in fact, it’s necessary.

Seeing rejection this way–as not just bearable but a positive part of life–is a powerful frame that can completely alter someone’s perception of failure, risk-taking and personal growth.

Or consider another classic - “The 4-Hour Workweek.” So much of the particular strategies or resources outlined in the book are now outdated.

Yet, what makes this business book a canonical text is the frameshift it introduced. Instead of the traditional lifestyle centered around a career, it advocates for one built around fulfillment and flexibility, made possible by efficient digital operations.

And, as the saying goes, once your mind has been stretched by a new idea like this, it can never go back to its original dimensions. Frame shifts have long-lasting effects, whereas tactics are fleeting.

What I’m describing in the text you’re reading right now is of course a frame shift as well.

I’m no longer approaching non-fiction books as a source of tactical advice. Instead, I’m looking for frames and heuristics that I can apply broadly to my life and business.

For me this frame shift wasn’t sparked by some specific book or podcast but maybe it will be for you.

Written on July 23, 2023

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