Entrepreneuriship Is Best Learned Experientially: Why Most Business Books (Still) Suck

I recently replied to a Quora entry which asked, “What are the best business-related books?” I shared my humble opinion that entrepreneurs should spend less time reading and more time experiencing reality. I concluded by including a link to an entry I wrote entitled, The Author’s Dilemma – Why Business Books Suck.

The person asking the question subsequently replied that I was “ignorant” and missing out on a great learning opportunity by not reading. Although the response was somewhat rude, it was valuable, as it caused me to think a bit more deeply about this issue.

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Touching a StoveTo set the record straight, I am an avid reader, although I seldom read business books. The point I was inarticulately attempting to make is was that the greater the distance between you and a particular experience, the less impactful and relevant the experience becomes.

Take, for instance, the proverbial child touching a hot stove. The lesson is ingrained in the child because it is visceral, undiluted and immediate. Compare this first-hand learning experience with: (i) someone animatedly telling you about the time they touched a hot stove, versus, (ii) reading about someone else’s hot stove experience, versus (iii) reading about a second-hand account of a hot stove incident. The further you are from the pain, the less meaningful, instructive and relevant the cause of the pain.

This same phenomenon occurs when emerging entrepreneurs read business books. To a greater or lesser degree, depending on the author’s intimacy with the recounted experiences, the time it takes to passively read about someone else’s experiences would be more effectively spent interacting with others who have relevant, real-world knowledge that they are willing to interactively share.

Consider the following chart, which describes the most-to-least impactful ways to learn entrepreneurial skills.

Impact on Entrepreneurs

Business Books Redux

To be fair, business books suck in a relativistic way. Given an emerging entrepreneur’s limited discretionary time, I believe you will generally learn more by engaging in entrepreneurial tasks and working closely with experienced Advisors than by passively absorbing anecdotes from a book.

In my reply to the “you are ignorant” Quora comment, I clarified that successful entrepreneurs love learning and that the desire to expand their intellectual horizons is often the impetuous for launching new ventures. I went on to explain that the key to entrepreneurial learning is to identify the most relevant and impactful experiential sources and to leverage them in the most efficient manner.

There is no doubt that business books can be entertaining and, in some cases, enlightening. However, irrespective of how many business books you read, you cannot “study” your way to entrepreneurial proficiency. Entrepreneurship is a physical sport, not a cerebral one.

During your various adVentures’ journeys, you will touch a lot of hot stoves, get a few scars and have numerous fun and fulfilling experiences along the way. I describe some tactics for making the most of your experiences here: Five Ways To Maximize Your Startup Experiences.

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Copyright © 2007-11 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • Cliff Elam

    My grandfather used to say: Experience is a fine school but only a dang fool learns in no other.

    But I agree with you.

    I think there are a category of things one can learn from books that would be expensive and difficult to learn from ‘real life.’ These live in a bucket in my brain labeled “theory=practice.” Example: Start your business with quickbooks and an accountant and a good chart of accounts and make sure you’re up to date weekly. Hear it, remember it, do it, reap the benefit.

    Other things require painful lessons and years of practice. I’ll just say: leadership or focus are among the biggies there.

    Good article, liked it a lot.


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  • I see business books kind of like a placebo for entrepreneurs.

    They don’t really tell you how to handle specific situations and the only way to learn is trial and error (mostly error). However, after I read a business book on contract negotiations, get advice on contract negotiations from advisers, read blogs on contract negotiations, I feel more confident walking into a negotiation for the first time. Which significantly increases the likelihood of success.

  • John Greathouse


    I agree with you. That is why I noted that bus books suck “relatively”. They certainly have their place in an entrepreneur’s education, but I think less emphasis should be placed on them, as compared to other experiential learning tools.

  • Dave Burger

    John, I continue to enjoy your posts.

    It is impossible to disagree with your point here. Active participation is far more effective way to learn than passive methods with almost anything, not just entrepreneurship. Where business books bring value, in my opinion, is not teaching so much as inspiring.

    “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” is an example. While oversimplified and potentially dangerous for people who are better suited to keep their jobs with BDC’s, I found it nonetheless inspiring (at the time I was working at the same BDC as you nephew Nick). This book is hardly a how-to do anything, but it does make its point that being an owner has big advantages to creating personal wealth and achieving self-actualization.

  • Why read the latest business fad book? The best ‘entrepreneur’ books are the timeless classics. Read Aristotle. Read classic literature. If you read the beginning of Aristotle’s metaphysics, he makes some good point on the difference between academic and experiential learning.

    If you want to know if something works, try it. Go out and meet people. Talk to people who’ve actually done something. Even if you know something intellectually, can you execute on that under pressure?

  • John Greathouse


    Great point. You can’t go wrong with the classics. There are good reasons why they have stood the test of time.

    Thanks for chiming in.

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  • I’ve read tons of startup / business books and I am at a point now where a majority of them are repetitive.

    The only books I really read now are books on persuasion and real startup “experiences” retold by entrepreneurs.

    Thanks for this post.. It pumps me up that much more to ditch the books and make shit happen.

  • John Greathouse


    I agree. I assume you have read “Influence”, which I discuss in this entry: http://johngreathouse.com/jedi2/

    A solid understanding of Persuasion Principles are invaluable for every entrepreneur.

    Thanks for your comment.

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  • R.Gokarn

    Another great article.
    I am just stuck into reading book after another book just to get more information, all the while knowing that it can only do so much. I have to go out and just do it.

    Perhaps, not having a MBA or business background makes me do this. I devour book after book reading almost 4 books a week but I know from ground experience that reality is just so different. But the main reason is that I learn so much and the learning curve gets smaller. It can help to minimize costly mistakes, broaden view points and it is valuable, but up to a point.

    Thanks for being so blunt and brutal. Just what I need.

  • Glad this was of some help. I wasn’t trying to be brutal, just trying to point out the relative impact books have versus hands-on experience. Some business books are entertaining – you will have plenty of time to read them sitting on the beach, after you exit your first venture!

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  • Education can change a nation. But this is right that with out entrepreneurship proper education never come. Proper lesson is ingrained in the child because it is visceral, undiluted and immediate. ..

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