Learning to cook? Is your dream to be a restaurant chef? Then you probably want authoritative books to supplement your learning from. A trip to a bookstore or a search on Amazon will surface countless titles such as Learn to cook like a Pro. Here is the irony: if you really want to learn, you want to become a Pro, or at least to get to a pre-professional level. Someone who cooks like a Pro is, by definition of the word “like”, not a Pro, and is typically nowhere close.
Takeaway: books with titles “Do X like a pro/master/expert” are poor sources, so long as you want to become an expert yourself. Organizing your bathroom like a pro is fine.
Math for Business Majors
A slightly better trend are books and courses such as Math for business majors, which is usually math dumbed down to such an extent that it can’t be called “math” any more. Adding insult to the injury, such courses are taught and books written by experts looking down upon the masses consuming this “knowledge”.
The list of book titles goes on and on:
- Math for Traders
- Psychology for Managers
- Stretching for Endurance Athletes
- Mindfulness for Performers
- Marketing for Small Business Owners
The key point is that there is only one math: there is not a trader’s version, a scientist’s version, and an accountant’s version. There is only one discipline of psychology, and whether you apply it as a manager or in your own family, it is still the same discipline, which is why it is called by the same word.
Nothing is absolute, and occasionally you would stumble upon a good book under one of the above titles. This tends to happen when the author has experience in both fields, such as a Ph.D. postdoc in math-turned-trader, who then has spent five years trading professionally. Such a person would know, what math is, what trading is, and would be qualified to make a connection. A manager-turned psychologist who worked in the corporate world, went back to school, got a license as a psychologist and spent five years in private counseling, would be qualified to make the connection between management and psychology. A gymnast-turned-professional cyclist would be qualified to make the connection between stretching and endurance sports.
Sometimes the author is an expert in only one of the two fields:
- Psychology for Managers – a psychologist with many years of experience has had a few managers as clients, among others (plumbers, doctors, waiters, unemployed people), and decides to write a niche book. The idea of day-to-day managerial life is secondhand and hypothetical at best; the authors tries to guess, what it may feel like to be a manager, and how then the psychological principles could perhaps be applied.
- Psychology for Managers – an experienced manager has gone through a lot, including hiring, firing, loss of friendships when things turned sour, all in all, a huge personal transformation, and writes about the unique psychological aspects that make up the manager’s job. The use of psychological jargon may be amateurish and technically incorrect, but the writing is backed by real experience.
Which one would you pick?
If you are a psychologist, you may want to learn, how to best counsel managers. Then how about a book entitled Counseling managers in clinical practice? If you are a psychologist yourself, you likely want the most technical and hard-core presentation there is. You wouldn’t want it dumbed down to what you had learned a decade ago, only for you to try to guess, what the real insight was.
If you are a manager, would you rather learn from an experienced manager or a psychologist who really has no clue about your field? You may be impressed by the credentials and the clinical experience of a psychologist; unfortunately, skills rarely translate in this way. Of course, a psychologist can write a generic self-help guide for the general public, but the ability to meaningfully customize it for a particular profession would be rare. After all, if you are a manager, would you try to write a book Managing People in a Private Hospital, if you have never worked in one?
Let me be clear: those books may have value. A phonebook also has value, or at least used to have before the Internet. So does a dictionary. If you need quick, basic, factual information on a particular domain, by all means, go with a shallow source that is straight-to-the point. This is fine, so long as you are not trying to master the field.
Books written to eventually make you an expert
In ancient times there was common knowledge available to the masses and esoteric knowledge available to the chosen few: the upper caste, priests, the royal family, partly because it provided an incredible advantage in life, partly because the masses are often not interested in this knowledge. Imagine Prometheus bringing fire to the people and, instead of gratitude, being beaten by stones and ostracized by the ignorant majority!
Today if you think of “classified knowledge”, what comes to mind are secret government documents. Many, but not all, of the esoteric learning secrets are available somewhere. Though the real secrets of top performers are still hard to find:
- there is no market for books on ultra-advanced topics. So above a certain level, the number of books that can guide you further drastically decreases.
- people qualified to write on ultra-advanced topics have better things to do with their time, especially when there is no market for such books in the first place. There are exceptions when a master just wants to leave a legacy, such as The Use of The Self by F.M.Alexander or The Art of Programming by Donald Knuth.
- a book may have to be supplemented by live instruction to adequately present the knowledge. Thus, it is also painful to write down rare gems of knowledge, only to see them losing most of their magic as soon as they land on the page.
- even if such a book has been written, you will probably not find it in the endless sea of alternatives.
Some of the most precious knowledge you may hope to find is how to become an expert. Much of it has not been broadly marketed, or even monetized, because, once again, the market for mastering skills at an advanced level is small, and the knowledge of how to get there is often politically incorrect.
At a minimum, you’d want to take advantage of the books that are publicly available, and still give you valuable learning guidance. The baseline requirement is this: the book intends to make you an expert. Obviously, no single book or course can accomplish that, but it has to have been planned as an upward step in a journey. Good sources in this category are:
- textbooks for 1st year students studying the field professionally. Examples: Introdution to Law for law students, Introduction to medicine for medicine students, Introduction to abstract algebra for math students.
- monographs typically named by the subject. Examples: The Art of Programming by Donald Knuth, Ballet Technique for the Male Dancer by Nicholai Tarasov (this is unlike “Psychology for Managers”, because ballet and dance are the same field), Word and Object by W.V.O.Quine.
- books on the subject that survived decades or centuries remaining relatively unknown, without marketing, and yet did not go into oblivion, such as The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari.
- (the best) books recommended by experts or their teachers, so long as there is no conflict of interest. The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham has been endorsed by Warren Buffett, who is clearly an expert. The fact that Warren Buffet has written a foreword does not make it a conflict of interest, as any conceivable book royalties would be negligible for him.
Dense and hard to read
A good indicator is when a book has a lot of information, so much, that it is hard to get through. You don’t want to read a book with 10 ideas, backfilled with fluff to make the minimum page limit. What you do want is a book where the author struggled to unload decades of experience in as few words as possible, so as to still fit under the maximum page limit.
- Mathematical Circles (Russian Experience) by Genkin, Itenberg Fomin,
- The Dance Technique of Lester Horton by M.Perces, A.M.Forsythe and C.Bell,
- Stretching Scientifically by Thomas Kurz, even though it’s written for the mainstream,
- Light on Yoga by B.K.S.Iyengar.
Lastly, do not ignore the current limits of your own psyche and willpower. While I have advocated ignoring your emotions, the idea of fighting your way through a dense 1000-page treatise may just encourage you to give up. Build up your reading ability gradually, and every once in a while take a break and read something fun and easy. Pick something unrelated to your ambitions; that bathroom organization guide may just do the trick!