When I first discovered non-fiction books, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. Whatever problem you could possibly have, there’s a book out there to help you solve it. I had a lot of challenges at the time, and so I started devouring lots of books.
I read books about money, productivity, and choosing a career. Then, I read books about marketing, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I read and read and read, and, eventually, I realized I had forgotten to implement any of the advice! The only habit I had built was reading, and as wonderful as it was, it left me only with information overwhelm.
After that phase, I flipped to the other, equally extreme end of the spectrum: I read almost no books, got all my insights from summaries, and only tried to learn what I needed to improve a given situation at any time.
So, do self-help books work? As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The right book at the right time can make a profound difference in your life. At the same time, you’ll never read — nor need — 99% of all books in existence, and with the exception of a rare few, you probably won’t miss anything.
I finally have a more balanced approach to reading, but for years, there’s been one notion in particular that kept me from reading non-fiction at a healthy yet not excessive pace: “Non-fiction books are a waste of your time.”
With book summary services by the dozen, podcasts and Youtube videos galore, this opinion has gained a lot of traction in recent years. Its main argument is that most books contain one good idea wrapped in 200 pages of filler. Why spend five hours reading when you can get the gist in five minutes?
In this article, I’ll show you exactly how modern non-fiction books waste your time — because to some extent, they do. I’ll also make a case as to why that shouldn’t deter you from reading them in the slightest. I’ll use one particular book as an example: Meet The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.
Why This Book?
The first time someone mentioned The One Thing to me was in 2014. A fellow coach said he used Keller’s concept a lot — and promptly sent me a 3-page summary of the book’s core thesis which, to be fair, is simple enough.
In essence, Keller suggests you use a singular “focusing question” in your life and work to determine your number one task at any given moment and in any given area. Then, you work only on that task until it’s done. As a result, all other tasks should become easier or unnecessary. This is the question:
I scanned the PDF, went, “Yup, got it,” and, for seven years, that was the end of it. I even bought the book a few years ago, but I only read it in full recently. When I did, it hit me that it was a perfect example of the modern non-fiction reader’s dilemma: The book contained a lot of fluff, but I still walked away from it feeling both smarter and inspired.
I didn’t choose this book as an example because it’s the only one that’s wasteful yet useful. I selected it because it’s a grippy concept that’s easy to understand, structured like a typical, modern bestseller, and because it did sell over one million copies.
The One Thing is representative of a large share, maybe even the majority of traditionally published non-fiction bestsellers today. The book counts 223 pages and is structured into three parts: “The Lies,” “The Truth,” and “Extraordinary Results.”
Let’s see what makes it bad and how a flawed book can still succeed — both as a bookshelf blockbuster and an investment for you, the reader.
How Bestsellers Waste Your Time
Here are ten time-wasting patterns that show up in many non-fiction books.
1. Survivorship Bias
It took exactly three pages for me to doubt the whole premise:
After these experiences, I looked back at my successes and failures and discovered an interesting pattern. Where I’d had huge success, I had narrowed my concentration to one thing, and where my success varied, my focus had too.
This is not just painfully obvious, it’s also a classic case of retroactive pattern-matching, which all humans are prone to. Keller did something that worked, and then he mapped a story to his success in hindsight — one that conveniently explains his achievements. The truth is that “something” was a combination of many things, and what Keller picked may not be the deciding factor. Likewise, others taking his same steps might not have succeeded.
We can only analyze what we know, so we’ll never eliminate survivorship bias completely, but still: Know it’s there, and take everything with a grain of salt.
2. Mismatched Examples
Proof of the ONE Thing is everywhere. Look closely and you’ll always find it.
To convince you his concept is the real deal, Keller then goes on example tour. He wants to convince you The One Thing is “a fundamental truth.” The problem is if you stare at anything long enough with the right filter in your sunglasses, it’ll look exactly like what you want to see.
Case in point: Keller claims companies succeed on one product, people on one skill, one relationship, etc. He then suggests Apple as a case study but says they “moved from Macs to iMacs to iTunes to iPods to iPhones” in the span of 14 years. He also claims it only takes “one person” but names three people who helped Oprah in her early years. Finally, he chooses Bill Gates as an example of “One Life,” yet lists a slew of his achievements. None of these case studies reflect Keller’s idea well — they just happen to be popular, and that’s why he superimposed his concept on them, even though it doesn’t fit.
3. “First, We Must Debunk”
This is the stereotypical non-fiction distraction. Most bestsellers do this, and it can easily fill, in Keller’s case, 70 (!) pages. The tenet is always the same:
Before we can have a frank, heart-to-heart discussion about how the ONE Thing actually works, I want to openly discuss the myths and misinformation that keep us from accepting it. They are the lies of success. Once we banish these from our minds, we can take up the ONE Thing with an open mind and a clear path.
This is nonsense. If you’ve just presented me with an original, clever idea, my mind is already open. There’s no need to open it wider. This is just selling to those who already bought and will lead to confirmation bias in the reader. Instead, authors should encourage healthy skepticism and critical reflection.
One easy way to see if the publisher forced the author to include a debunking section is to watch out for the next two time-wasters.
4. Glib Phrases…
When these pile up, it’s a sign the writer was running on fumes.
Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.
Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner.
Pareto’s Principle is as real as the law of gravity, and yet most people fail to see the gravity of it.
Keller’s debunking section is full of one-liners using repetition to turn a clever phrase. Great tweets but not necessary material, especially when it comes…
5. …On Repeat
What do you notice about this paragraph?
The six lies are beliefs that get into our heads and become operational principles driving us the wrong way. Highways that end as bunny trails. Fool’s gold that diverts us from the mother lode.
If you ask me, these are three sentences saying the same thing. Two of them should be cut.
Why would you ever do something the hard way? Why would you ever knowingly get behind the eight ball, deliberately crawl between a rock and a hard place, or intentionally work with one hand tied behind your back?
There’s this joke in academia that, when writing a paper, you “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ‘em.” In non-fiction books, that’s just wasting the reader’s time.
6. Contradictory Conclusions
Another sign the publisher told the author to elaborate on a certain section is when individual chapter conclusions logically fall apart. Take this one from chapter 5, “Multitasking,” for example:
1. Distraction is natural. Don’t feel bad when you get distracted. Everyone gets distracted.
2. Multitasking takes a toll. At home or at work, distractions lead to poor choices, painful mistakes, and unnecessary stress.
3. Distraction undermines results. When you try to do too much at once, you can end up doing nothing well. Figure out what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.
So what now? Is it okay to be distracted or not? I get what Keller is trying to do here, but when you just read ten pages on why multitasking is bad, a conclusion that basically cancels 1 and -1 out to zero feels weak and dissatisfying. It doesn’t feel like progress, which likely means Keller himself also didn’t think it was crucial to his core line of reasoning.
7. Summaries of Already Popular Scientific Studies
Just like your gym plays the same three workout songs over and over, pop science often centers around only a few dozen studies — and then every author quotes them ad nauseam. Keller is no exception.
The marshmallow experiment, the willpower test in the Israeli parole system, the Pareto principle — if you’ve read any pop-sci literature in the past decade, you’ll likely have come across these. The stories in these studies are powerful, their findings extraordinary, but while summarizing them makes for some quick pages and social proof, you could also find other credible sources to illustrate the same concepts in ways your readers have never heard before.
The more unique stories and evidence a book provides, the more likely we’ll discover and recommend it for the novelty factor alone.
8. Trying Too Hard to Provide Social Proof
Sacrificing novelty in favor of credibility is one thing, but you can also lose credibility by trying too hard to establish it. Right before presenting his core concept — the focusing question — Keller quotes Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and an ancient Chinese proverb. Then, more social proof:
Voltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Sir Francis Bacon added, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Indira Gandhi concluded that “the power to question is the basis of all human progress.”
Socrates, Harvard, Nancy Willard, the list goes on and on, and, quite frankly, it gets tiring. I bought this book to see what Keller thinks, not what others think. The occasional “this person agrees” can bolster your arguments, but if you lather on validations like hair grease in an 80s movie, your thesis will look like the slick but insecure protagonists of said movies: sleazy and full of it.
9. Retelling Stories to Make Unrelated Points
After concluding the central section of the book, “The Truth,” which contains only three chapters, Keller is back into filler mode. He retells the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on two pages with little emphasis on the visits of the ghosts — and a lot on the happy ending. He concludes:
Through this simple story, Charles Dickens shows us a simple formula for creating an extraordinary life: Live with purpose. Live by priority. Live for productivity.
It’s a nice little framework Keller has created to add context to his focusing question, but it feels totally unrelated to this story. The connection seems pulled out of thin air, and it’s one you could retrofit to countless other examples. A few pages later, he repeats the process with a story called “The Begging Bowl,” and it also feels forced.
Not every argument needs a colorful back-story. Sometimes, ideas ring loudest in our minds when they speak for themselves.
10. Other Pitfalls and Pet Peeves
- Sloppy sourcing. At some point, Keller quotes Aristotle but doesn’t mention his name. This can happen out of negligence but shouldn’t.
- Pre-formatted highlights of certain passages. This is like chewing food in advance for your baby, and readers aren’t babies. Everyone will find other lines clever and relevant to them. Let us discover them on our own.
- Absolute statements. “I want you to reject this idea.” “My idea is the absolute principle of success.” “The most successful people are the most productive people.” There is nothing absolute in this world. When authors pretend there is, they look naive, and, often, they’ll be wrong too.
- Any kind of filler that’s easily identifiable as such. Full-page graphics that just repeat other graphics. Needlessly drawn out examples of how to apply a tool. Chapters that needn’t be there. And so on.
Alright. That was a lot of flack. At this point, you might think I didn’t gain anything from Keller’s book at all. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d wholeheartedly recommend The One Thing to the right person at the right time (like I was when I read it). Let’s see what made the book worth it — and thus understand why reading non-fiction is an important habit in general.
Why Should You Read Bestsellers Anyway?
These three factors make non-fiction books worth reading despite their flaws.
1. The Immersion Factor
The difference between reading a three-page summary of The One Thing and reading all of its 200+ pages is the difference between dipping your toe into the water and swimming in the pool for 45 minutes: One doesn’t challenge you at all, the other requires commitment, effort, and perseverance.
When you read a whole book about a single idea or topic, you spend time with it. You immerse yourself in it. Immersion leads to doubt and reflection. You’re much more likely to assess, accept, reject parts of, execute, and improve upon an idea when you’ve spent six hours with it instead of six minutes.
I knew the concept of The One Thing for years, but only after reading it did I think about and use the focusing question in my life and work. I decided to test my book ideas in articles before committing to them, which made sure I wrote a book that was well received. To improve my chances of landing big hits, I chose to write meatier articles. Being familiar with the idea alone didn’t matter. Immersion made all the difference.
This factor requires some balance, of course. Like I said in the beginning: You can’t just read, but if each stint is followed by deep reflection and a change in habits, the immersion factor of books is hard to overstate.
2. Easter Eggs Year Round
When I turned the page to Keller’s penultimate “lie of success,” I stumbled into something unexpected: A chapter about living a balanced life. By mere coincidence, this is an idea I’ve dedicated a lot of thought and energy too, and so I was both surprised and happy to learn what Keller thinks about it. I was even more thrilled to discover an entirely new perspective on the matter:
What appears to be a state of balance is something entirely different — an act of balancing. Viewed wistfully as a noun, balance is lived practically as a verb.
I have been setting one-word annual themes for several years. In 2020, my theme was “balance.” I even suggested using words that are both nouns and verbs in an article about the topic — and yet, despite all this, Keller’s words showed me I hadn’t lived balance as a verb at all. I’d always been striving for the state of balance. The noun. That had been my goal. The insight shook me.
“The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes,” Keller goes on to explain. He then tells a unique, personal story about a mother who, due to terminal illness, never saw the retirement she had been looking forward to for decades. Therefore, instead of seeking balance, you should…
Replace the word “balance” with “counterbalance” and what you experience makes sense.
Keller says if you focus on what’s important — which you must — something will always get neglected. But if you counterbalance from work back to life and vice versa, as well as counterbalance within each of those two areas, you can find a great rhythm. “In your personal life, nothing gets left behind. At work it’s required.” Keller even provides several graphs to illustrate the idea:
Do I agree with everything Keller wrote in this chapter? No. But did I gain tremendous value from accidentally discovering a new take on a concept that means a lot to me? Absolutely. If I hadn’t muscled through the lies section, I never would have found this chapter — nor the one after that about how to think big, which was just as insightful.
When you only read in hopes of extracting a singular, specific piece of knowledge, you’ll never get any fringe benefits. If you read around the specifics you seek, however, if you “sweep the general area” by reading the whole book, you’ll find easter eggs year round. Insights you never could have hoped for but that, in hindsight, make all the difference.
Forrest Gump barely read, but I’m sure he’d agree opening a book is like lifting the lid of his metaphorical chocolate box: “You never know what you’re gonna get” — and you never know which candy will taste sweetest down the line.
3. Get the Whole Puzzle
A book always starts with one idea. That idea will end up as the centerpiece of a 1,000-piece puzzle. When you read a book summary, you only get a few chunks of the puzzle. You won’t be able to assemble the whole thing.
In case of The One Thing, the chapter with the focusing question literally sits in the middle, and the idea expands in both directions from there. The chapters around it, however, add valuable context. If I don’t know Keller’s thoughts about his concept in their entirety, I can’t really dismiss any of them, can I?
The beauty of life is that we all have a unique perspective. Even when we read the same book, each of us will end up with a slightly different looking puzzle. It is important to think about which piece belongs where for you. You’re free to swap out bits at any time, but if you start with a puzzle full of holes, your mind might fill in a lot of nonsense where the author could have added clarity. Therefore, it is better to gather all the pieces you can grab — and then toss the ones that don’t fit later.
Other Fringe Benefits
- Memorable metaphors. You’ll discover new ways of remembering and explaining concepts you already know. Keller makes a nice analogy about the limits of multitasking: You can talk while walking, but only as long as both are easy. If you had to instruct a passenger on how to land a plane, you’d probably stop walking. And if you were walking on a narrow ledge on a mountain, you’d probably stop talking. It’s about relative complexity. You’ll find unexpected yet useful mental images in most books.
- Quotable quotes. What’s glib and what’s pithy is subjective. For every line you find to be too clever, you’ll find one you’ll actually like. Some, you’ll naturally remember, and they won’t just make you sound smart at parties, they also have a way of popping back into your head at exactly the right time. “Mastery is a path you go down, not a destination you arrive at,” is one example from this book for me.
- Unique stories. You can’t write a book without inserting part of yourself into it. It’s inevitable. The best stories are those where the author didn’t try to block that process. Whenever Keller cites a poem he likes or tells a story from his life, I read carefully. These are stories I can’t find anywhere else. Every person has unique stories, and every writer is bound to tell some. They’re worth seeking out.
- New teachers. Keller opens each chapter with a quote from someone else. That’s a nice touch. It’s inspiring. It also shows me who influenced his thinking, and if I want, I can then go and learn more from those teachers myself, be it through their books, talks, etc. A book is never just one person’s POV. It’s an amalgamation of everything the author ever learned from anyone, and that opens countless new doors for you, the reader.
Do Self-Help Books Work? – All You Need to Know
My theme for this year is “Matter.” As in: What matters? Which matters? And which matter, both material and intangible?
With each passing day in the 21st century, it gets a little easier to dismiss books as a waste of time. Why read 200 pages if two will do? Let’s listen to the audiobook on 1.5x speed! Why not just watch interviews?
It’s true that writers, like all people, make many mistakes. They’re biased. They ramble. They manufacture structure where none existed. In doing so, however, they create a unique yet collaborative, lengthy yet filtered, flawed yet valuable result: a book you can read today, tomorrow, or 100 years after they have died.
Since I want to spend time thinking about what’s important this year, a book about focus was a great way to send my thoughts in the right direction. This is the first reason you should read non-fiction books in full, even if you can get the gist in just a few pages: Their bias around this idea will rub off on you — and that’s a good thing if it’s a bias you want to have in this phase of your life.
The second reason is that you never know what you’ll find along the way. It might be a pithy phrase you’ll repeat for years to come, a funny story that’ll make the core idea easier to remember, or nothing worthwhile at all— but unless you read it all, you can’t know for sure.
The final reason is that everyone has their own point of view, and for each topic, the more of someone’s POV you see, the better you can assemble your own understanding out of many other people’s individual parts.
Now, you might look at this analysis and say: “What? Only three pros and ten cons?” The truth is it doesn’t matter how big each side is, as long as the pros outweigh the cons. I think they do — and by a large, large margin. It’s easy to forgive many small errors if the big factors are right. While reading, you might shake your head at glib phrases and outdated notions, but if you just keep reading, you might discover the next wondrous idea a few pages later.
It’s true: Modern non-fiction books waste your time. But they’re still one of the best tools we have to become smarter, humbler, happier, and connect with the people around us and the world at large. So go on. Read more books. After all…