Why Books And Canned Business Courses Will Not Help You In Real Life

When I was in college, I used to think that everything could be learned by simply reading a book. After all, throughout high school and college at Stanford, I was able to do well in most of my classes without having to attend or pay attention to lecture.

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In fact, one of my friends in college always used to make fun of me because I would bring a kneepad as a pillow and my walkman (yes, a walkman cassette player) to every class and doze off.

Things were much easier back then and the formula was simple.

Before every big exam, I would cram and read the professor’s textbook cover to cover, review and do all of the problem sets in one sitting and voila!

The tests would be more or less a regurgitation or a slightly modified application of what was covered in the book.

I did well because I always knew what was going to be on the test. The material was self-contained and there were never any real surprises. I knew that there was no chance that I would be quizzed on anything outside of the curriculum.

Real Life Is Not A Class

And so I went through the first phase of my life thinking that everything was going to be a cake walk. If I ever got stuck, I would simply find a relevant book, read it cover to cover and it would teach me how to solve my problems. Boy was I wrong.

My first job out of college was as a board designer for a digital printing company. And there, I had my first shocking revelation. The real world was anything but cookie cutter.

I still remember my first work project very clearly. I was assigned to create a specialized circuit board for a digital color copier which I thought was going to be an easy project.

“I’m going to design this baby by the book. Should be a cake walk”

And so I produced my first circuit board based on the theoretical principles of hardware design that I learned in school expecting everything to work on the first try. And of course it didn’t. Even though my calculations were fundamentally sound, the damn thing didn’t work and I couldn’t explain why.

Finally, I got frustrated enough to ask another engineer for help and he laughed at me.

“Silly newbie, electricity doesn’t behave by the book in real life”

As I quickly discovered, there’s a lot of “black magic” involved when designing computer hardware. There are random elements of noise and environmental factors that cause electricity to behave in strange ways that are often times unpredictable.

And it’s up to the designer to account for these anomalies in creating a circuit board that is robust under all conditions. They didn’t teach this stuff in school!!!

There Is An Art To Everything In Life

Turns out that my real world education had just begun. Here’s another dumb example of how naive I was coming out of school. When I graduated from college, I really wanted to own a stick shift car.

So naturally, I downloaded a manual transmission guide off of the Internet and learned the basic principles of how to drive stick (I had driven stick a long time ago but completely forgot how).

Seemed easy enough and I understood the theory of how everything worked. Just one more pedal shouldn’t be that difficult to master right?

So I basically went and bought a brand new stick shift car without really having mastered driving one (I test drove the automatic version of the same car before deciding to purchase it). Needless to say, I almost wrecked my brand new car coming out of the parking lot.

Looking back, I’ve studied many things without being able to master what I’ve learned. For example, I have a lot of theoretical book knowledge about photography but I still suck at composing a good picture. I can follow a cook book just fine, but my dishes never ever come out quite right…

So what’s my point and how does this relate to business?

Running A Business Is An Art

Learning how to run a successful business follows the exact same analogy. Do you really think that you can possibly learn everything there is to know about starting an online business by reading a book?

How about 10 books? How about watching a bunch of videos? How about reading case studies or watching interviews?

Have you ever wondered why you can not reproduce the exact same results as someone else that you read about online even though you are following their “exact” same strategies?

The answer is because starting and running a profitable business is a work of art and not a series of canned steps that you follow in order to be successful.

Every single business is going to be completely different and needs to be treated accordingly on a case by case basis.

This is why I can wholeheartedly say that most ebooks and courses you find online will probably not take you to the promised land….unless there is a human component involved.

Yes…that’s right. A human. First off, it’s impossible for anyone to document and write down every single step it takes to start a successful business. Second of all, it’s even more impossible to account for all of the intricacies involved for a specific business.

Because every one will have different strengths, weaknesses and inclinations, it’s important to have a mentor who will provide you with specialized advice based on your exact situation.

Nothing Is Cookie Cutter

Even with my Create A Profitable Online Store Course, the pre-recorded material and 400 page pdf will only take you so far which is why I also provide live weekly office hours and specialized feedback on a per store basis.

The personality of the small business owner also plays a role in the teaching process as well. Based on an individual’s skill set and interests, one student may need to follow a completely different set of recommendations as another student in the exact same situation.

As I have learned in the many years since I’ve left college, there is nothing cookie cutter in life. And this is exactly why most canned courses and ebooks will never teach you what you need to know to be successful in business. Every business is different and the material needs to adjust accordingly.

Here’s a student who recently signed up for my course and only lasted a week before asking for a refund.

Hi Steve: your course is very informative and comprehensive but the details of every thing discouraged me…I wanted somebody to tell me every thing in one page without giving me so many options to choose every step.


What this student was basically asking me to do was to provide her with a cookie cutter template on how to start a successful business and fit it on a single page! That’s not how it works!

Be prepared to work hard if you plan on starting any business. Following templates or canned tutorials isn’t going to cut it!

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18 thoughts on “Why Books And Canned Business Courses Will Not Help You In Real Life”

  1. Hell yes! :) It IS hard work. I also realized, after college, that the real world is much much harder than school. Going to grad school and doing a PhD prepared me for starting a business, though, because scientific research is also an art…So you learn to deal with challenges and realize that you have to keep making educated hypotheses you can test…and hopefully things come together at some point :).

    1. I had no idea you had a PhD! What was your specialty?

      1. Molecular Bio. I go back and forth between going back to it, since I took time off to stay home with kids, but the hours are not that great…

  2. Your examples are a bit hyperbolic. There are actually a great many things that can be learned from books. Every truly successful business owner I know is a reader for this very reason. No, you won’t find a step-by-step manual for doing anything in business, which can be applied as-is. However, the “art” you speak of must be based upon sound principles, and those principles must be learned somewhere. Books are a source, as are out-of-scope mentors.

    By the way, so were those classes in college which you failed to take advantage of. The books had only facts, while the professors were responsible for helping you learn the principles for future use. Had you paid attention in classes, you might not have made such a simple error on that first circuit board. You understood the facts, but had entirely failed to learn the principles.

    Most business books are the opposite of most textbooks. The business books focus on teaching the principles, and reading them (with an active learning style) can shorten the time it takes to learn those principles.

    1. Hey Gerry,

      You throw any engineering student fresh out of college and have them design any real piece of hardware and I guarantee you that they will have problems… At the university, they teach you all of the theory and very little of the practical stuff. They theory is good to know but I probably could do most of what I do today based on practical on the job knowledge alone.

      Books are fine if they inspire you, but most people these days that I encounter are looking for a step by step manual which doesn’t exist.

  3. Not a lot of practical experiences learned in college. I guess that is up to parents to teach. Teaching your kids about money and investing at an early age will help them once their in the real world.

    1. COmpletely agree. I actually had the luxury of my parents teaching me how to invest in stocks at any early age, so I already had a small nest egg when I graduated.

  4. I completely agree! I worked my ass off through 6 years Architecture school and can honestly say I did NOT learn anything there which I apply to my residential design firm today. And I went to some really well known universities which are believed to be great schools. I learned EVERYTHING I do today during the 5 years I worked as a project manager at a large firm — which led me to start my own firm in 2002. THEN… I realized how little I knew about running my own firm! My personal drive to work as hard as it takes, keep low overhead costs, and respond to client needs has helped me make it this far. BUT… my drive to think outside the box has helped me THRIVE in a Housing Market DEPRESSION! Steve, your words are dead on! This understanding seems to be dwindling fast here in America. Most people want the drive-through McRiches, but do not understand what it takes to build wealth — HARD WORK! And when you have failed a few times (after working as hard as you could), dig deep to discover something no one has thought of in your industry or niche. THEN you will kill it — with more hard work!

    1. Hey Mark. Thanks for sharing your story. Would you be interested in writing about it here on the blog?

      1. Would be happy to do so, but not quite yet. I’m working on a huge new marketing plan which will be very congruent with what you speak of through your blog. If it’s not too much to ask, check back with me in 6 months. :):):) I hope to have it all rolled out by then. Very cool stuff!

  5. Pingback: Balancing Numbers
  6. Hi Steve–I think you hit the nail on the head with the human factor. There are so many subtleties involved in a business. One person will dig his heels in and never quit, another gives up after the first try. One is a people person, the other is an introvert. One is a troubleshooter, the other can’t handle problems. One is creative, another is very mechanical.

    You can teach technique, but you can’t convey human ability and personal traits. All you can offer in a how-to program is a shot at success. Whether or not it works will depend entirely on the person and how they’re wired.

  7. Hi Steve, I absolutely LOVE your comment about “running a business is an art.” It’s so true, and you really have to be hands on, and you have to have a feel for your market and your place in it.

    Of course, while you cannot learn everything you need from a course or book, I do feel I learn from online sources and books. It’s just that I recognize more of what I don’t know (and as time goes on I realize I know even less!).

    - Anita

    1. Hey Anita,

      What an honor to have you comment on my blog! The motivation for this article wasn’t so much to denounce that all books are bad but because I’ve been really tired of reading all of the get rich quick sales pitches recently. In addition, I’ve had some unrealistic expectations out of a few of my students as well.

      Like you, I find myself learning all the time from a variety of different sources:)

  8. This article is spot-on Steve. While there are fundamentals that should be adhered to in certain cases. There is no cut-and-paste formula for success. Everyone’s experiences are different, which will in turn make their path to success different as well.

  9. Steve,
    As an entrepreneur coach, the quote you shared from a student wanting “somebody to tell me every thing in one page without giving me so many options to choose every step,” rings true. I’ve heard similar complaints. People enroll in coaching/training programs because they think they are getting an end result – a product, but in reality what students receive is something much more valuable – a process. Students are buying a process that can be repeated to make money over and over again. The sad part is that many students aren’t willing to do the hard work of working through the process.

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