The “business book” version of Harry Potter

I own at least 50 different business books. I’ve even read “most of” most of them.

And this, in itself, is the trouble with most business books. You can read the first 60% (sometimes, even the first 40%) and get the gist for how the rest of the book will go.

This is a terrible track record.

Just imagine if we’d be okay with reading only 60% of some of our favorite novels out there. If you only read the first 60% of 1984, for instance, you’d never get to the juiciest, crunches, darkest bits in the end that make you wonder about your life and the meaning of everything. Or imagine reading 60% of Moby Dick, getting the gist (“Got it. He’s chasing a whale.”), and just putting it down. Will he or won’t he? It’s no longer of interest to you.

We’d never make it through high school English class if we only read the first 60% of To Kill a Mockingbird, nor would we learn the hard truths it has to teach us in the end. In Romeo and Juliet, reading only the first 60% might lead us into thinking that making rash romantic decisions has absolutely no consequences whatsoever. And just think how many millions of dollars of swag, merchandise, and movie production costs would have been saved, had none of us cared enough to see the ending of all seven Harry Potter book.

You might be saying, well, these are two totally different things. Fiction books tell stories and business books give advice.

I’d argue that the inverse is actually true. Fiction books give advice through stories, and business books tell stories to give advice.

And that’s where the trouble begins.

The business book anecdote

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Here’s the thing about stories like this: It doesn’t really change the way you might behave at work tomorrow. It just reminds you that you’re nowhere near as clever or resourceful as that guy.

It also gives us so little context into the boiled-down version of the actions and events that it’s nearly impossible to emphasize with these characters. Sure, we get that times were tough. We get that people were sad. But that’s about the same amount of engagement I feel from reading any story in the newspaper. We can do better than this.

What we can learn from Harry Potter

Think of how much we learn about love and friendship and perseverance through reading a book like Harry Potter. Let’s use a super relatable example of a narrative structure used well in this book and how it taught us about character motivations and reliability. (And okay, I’m going to say something here that may shock you if for some reason you’re one of the three remaining people on Earth who hasn’t read Harry Potter yet. If that’s you, then stop reading now.)

Spoiler alert: Dumbledore dies.

Not just dies, but Snape kills him. In cold blood. Right there, on the balcony with his wand. While Harry is watching.


For me, this was one of those moments in literature that really came to define how I looked at life, death, love, and friendship. I read this book super early on in my life, while I was still a sponge for information, and it may have been one of the first characters outside of a Disney movie that I came to love who was then taken away from me. Of course, we get over this, yes. But then we also learn from it. And we learn how much of a badass Harry Potter becomes afterward — we know exactly why Harry needs to avenge his death. We know about his parents and their deaths, and we understand, even if we will never truly relate, to the reasons why he has to ultimately take on all of the horcruxes, destroy them, and eventually go toe-to-to with the evil Voldemort.

Part of the beauty of this sequence is that it takes a lifetime to get there. Seven books and over 1 million words in all. Was the payoff worth it? Just look to how much the Harry Potter franchise is worth, and you tell me.

Now, let’s try one more thing. I’m going to tell the Harry Potter story in a business book inspired anecdote. Ready? Here we go:

Something tells me this wouldn’t quite rally the same kind of emotional turbulence inside that would get people dressing up like wizards and taking quizzes about which sorting house they belong inside for decades to come.

Maybe the trouble with business books isn’t that they aren’t telling stories. Maybe it’s just that we aren’t telling them the right way.

Also published on Dry Erase.

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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