Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration – Thomas Edison
I can never walk past a second-hand bookstore without going in.
A library is the same. I feel like I’ve missed out if I have to leave without having run my fingers over a row of books.
But these days when I stop on books, especially ones about management, marketing and business I find it hard to justify picking them up.
Most books are written with a structure and formula, not entirely visible, yet still there.
For example, there is usually an anecdote, a story of someone that did something and how as a result something happened.
Then there are the lists – the lists of questions to ask yourself, the lists that are designed to be psychological measurement tools that tell you where you lie on a spectrum and the lists of characteristics and features that you should look for.
Now the writing business is a business so if you want to make any money your books need to be what people expect – a certain size, a certain type – because we don’t like things we don’t know.
The point of picking up the book is to learn something you didn’t already know. To discover thoughts that might help you with the kinds of things you want to do.
Let’s take an example – in Brian Tracy’s books you’ll often find exercises to do.
One of them is a sentence completion task. He asks you to complete sentences like:
- I am …
- People are …
- Life is …
- My biggest goal in life is …
If you were working through the book fairly quickly you might write a word or phrase right there and then.
But, then you would have missed the opportunity in the exercise.
What you should do is come up with as many completions as you can.
You might think about all the ways you could end “I am…”
Are you a
… and so on.
The value comes when you keep going and then when you are exhausted going some more.
Why is that?
Because the answers that come easily – the first few – are what you think you are.
They are the words and phrases that you and others have used for many years to describe such things.
They may not be who you really are right now – just because you haven’t thought about this for a while.
And I think that when something isn’t born out of exhaustion you can tell.
You can tell when an author has written a book to market.
When they have written something that hasn’t drained them – taken them to the edge of what they know – and caused them to question the foundations of their thinking.
It’s safe writing – and that’s not where you are going to get value.
It’s easy to come up with a list of things to do. But often, what is needed is not the list but the time spent in staring at the first question on the list and coming up with every response you can.
That’s sometimes called divergent thinking – expanding your thinking.
Then, you might look at that mess and pick out the ones that resonate with you.
Or go for a walk. Or to bed.
And then the next day you might come up with something entirely new – not on the list at all but something that is right and new and something you can share.
It’s insight born from exhaustion – you’ve reached the finish crawling on your hands and knees and that’s what it took to discover that new thought.
As I was reading quotes by George Polya one about the sayings of a maths professor jumped out: “In order to solve this differential equation you look at it till a solution occurs to you.”
That’s the thing about insight – it doesn’t come from a line on a page or a talk from someone.
It emerges when those lines and words mix with your time and effort and create something new that is right for you.
So that’s the thing about these books I see now – I look at the lists and wonder whether I have the energy to do what is needed to really use them well.
Because when you realise that you will need to keep going for a long time to make it worthwhile you also have to get much choosier about what to do in the first place.
Choosier about which race you’re going to enter – because you’re so determined to finish – come what may.