Large physical bookstores in the real world, if you can find one these days, often devote a section to business-related titles. Many are basically self-help books for managers. Most of them are just terrible, embarrassingly so.
We’ve all probably read (or more likely skimmed through) a few of them over the years. I wasn’t willing to criticize them aloud until recently. A woman calling in over Zoom from a cave somewhere said, “I hate self-help books in general,” and was apparently not inclined to read the title that her supervisor assigned her work group to read.
What often happens with self-help books is that publishers want to pair successful managers, many in the technology space, with a book concept that boils down the essence of their personal management habits and tips. Such books are often penned by a ghost writer after a few interviews with said successful executive who then goes on a book tour. A high-quality photo of the executive on the book cover is essential, and it helps if the photo actually looks like that executive.
There are self-help books that encourage you to make lists—endless lists! -- of your priorities and others that encourage you run weekend retreats with your top managers where everybody beats drums and sweats (so the group can all respond to the same drumbeat, how quaint).
I recall sitting in one unusually bizarre session as a management trainee for a drug company when the facilitator got into a 15-minute debate with a participant over whether managers should make lists of “top priorities” versus simply “priorities.” The facilitator was losing his patience and kept repeatedly insisting--spitting--that the word “priority” actually means the same thing as “top priority.” If it’s your priority, then it is already at the top of a list, he kept saying. So, it seems, self-help advice often comes down to little more than semantics: Your top priority is just my priority.
So much of the self-help movement is finding cool, new ways to explain simple concepts in new terms. It’s as if a branding company set up a focus group to explore new ways to say “take deep breaths” and came up with: “fulfill, refine, cleanse, gargle, expectorate, disambiguate….” It’s as if publishers want us to turn a hot yoga session into a lounge chair experience where there’s little chance of suffering back strain or even of perspiring.
I recently ran across, again, Andre Spicer’s 2017 book, Business Bullshit, which is a frank appraisal of all the ways businesses, including tech companies, use empty talk. This empty talk populates the self-help genre, from terms such as “going forward” to “drill down” to “deliverables” to “incentivizing” to “low-hanging fruit.” (Bet you never use that one again!) In an especially pointed piece in The Guardian, Spicer adds, “What we need is an anti-bullshit movement…made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language.”
If rooting out empty language is the goal, we should look back at pandemic-ridden, truth-challenged 2020 with collective eyes rolling skyward. The country and the world need a big dose of self-help, not just tech managers, but it probably won’t come from a book as much from ordinary farmer-style common sense where we seek truth, challenge claims and speak in clear terms. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” was the motto over the door at my first reporting job at City News Bureau of Chicago. Empty language signals empty truth.
Since by now I probably won’t be getting any offers to write a business self-help book, I will now conclude by sharing my own short list of self-help advice to tech managers gleaned from my fantastically keen insights as reporter covering politics and tech for four decades:
- Don’t be an ass. (self-explanatory)
- Speak and write in much shorter sentences than ever in your life.
- Don’t walk up to two people who are speaking and then start talking to one of them like the other one isn’t there. (Does this happen to you as much as to me, as the one who gets ignored?)
- Do not ever use another three-letter acronym (TLA) in a public speech ever again in your life. Ever. I mean it. Stop it. Ordinary people won’t understand you.
- Do not invent a TLA either.
- In case any of this isn’t clear enough, refer to #1.
Matt Hamblen is editor of Fierce Electronics.