The Naked Idea: What I Do with What I Read
“The greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.” ~Peter Drucker
I recently delivered a keynote address to a group of business and strategy executives. When I’m preparing for such a talk the audience is of little concern to me. Once I have the topic, I write for myself – a piece of advice I’ve adopted from William Zinsser, best-selling author, editor and former professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (until his passing in 2015 at the age of 92). On the topic of audience, Zinsser writes:
“Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?”
It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is a different person…You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”
I love Zinsser’s advice and have adopted it on a range of content – from presentations to articles (like this one) to videos. I create for myself and trust that if I go about it with enjoyment and enthusiasm, you too will be entertained and informed.
After the keynote, several members of the audience complimented the “thought-provoking” nature of the talk. My favorite compliments are, “I’ve never thought about it the way you explained it, but it makes a lot of sense now.” Or, “I’ve always known that to be true, but I never knew how to explain it… until now.” Those compliments keep me going.
One woman commented, “Your ideas are so interesting and thought-provoking. Where do they come from?” It was a flattering comment, but the truth, I told her, was less interesting. I don’t have a lot of new ideas, I just read a lot – and in doing so, I expose myself to a lot of old ideas. If I add any value, it’s in my ability to make new connections between old ideas. This led to an explanation of what I do with what I read.
The Case for Nonfiction
I consider myself well-read on a variety of subjects. My home library is filled with all sorts of interesting books; books about the civil war, the Navy, golf, philosophy and stoicism, entrepreneurship, sociology, biographies and autobiographies, strategy, leadership, innovation and business management.
For the most part, my library consists of nonfiction. I prefer the prose style writing of facts, real events and real people to those of the imagination. Some people scoff at my preference. How dull and boring? they say. But nothing could be further from the truth. Nonfiction can be read for enjoyment just as easily as fiction. Consider the following excerpts, all beautifully written, all nonfiction:
- “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” ~Thomas Paine, American Crisis, 1776
- “Good sense is, of all the things among men, the most equally distributed; for everyone thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.” ~Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637
- “Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.” ~Moltke the Elder, Military Works, 1862
My Historical Hero
My favorite book is the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. The conditions under which Grant wrote the Memo is as astounding as the work itself. The Civil War hero and two-term President penned his autobiography from his deathbed, writing nearly 50 pages a day in an effort to finish before his time was up. He succeeded, dying five days after writing the final page. The Memoirs and the story of its publication so captured my imagination that I bought a first addition copy, printed in 1885 (the year of Grant’s death) – the prize of my book collection.
The clarity, wisdom and straightforwardness of Grant’s writing is what makes the Memoirs so special. Turn to any page and you’ll find a useful life lesson. If you’re lucky enough to turn to pages 249-250, you’ll find this gem – a valuable lesson about courage and perspective:
From the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Chapter 18, Pages 249-250
…I received orders to move against Colonel Thomas Harris, who was said to be encamped at the little town of Florida, Missouri, some twenty-five miles south of where we then were.
…Harris had been encamped in a creek bottom for the sake of being near water. The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.
Within a few moments, Grant gained a fresh perspective that calmed his nerves and forever changed his view of the enemy. He realized that his enemy feared the confrontation as much as he had. Grant saw his enemy as human. A lesson for us all.
Entertainment, Wisdom and the Naked Idea
The purpose of sharing these passages is to make this point: Reading nonfiction can be enormously entertaining while making us smarter about real people, places, things, ideas and events. However, it’s the usefulness of this knowledge – how easily it fits our daily lives – that separates entertainment from wisdom. The best works give us both. Paine, Descartes, Moltke the Elder and Grant gave us both. But the most important step is up to us – applying that knowledge to action and behavior.
Applying knowledge to practice can be challenging. It’s one thing to understand how an idea works in theory; it’s something else to translate and use the idea in real conditions. Contextual neglect is usually to blame for an idea’s failing – assuming that what worked in one environment will work as well in another. Rarely is this the case.
I read to learn. What I do with what I read depends on the naked idea, a term I use to describe the idea stripped of its context. Once I understand the naked idea, I can consider its usefulness in my context. Some ideas work, others don’t. Some ideas (most in fact) only work under certain conditions (i.e. if A and B are true, the idea works). The point is to avoid contextual neglect and the assumption that what worked here will work there.
Three Questions: From Knowledge to Practice
I use a simple process consisting of three questions. Although I’ve been referring to the written word, these questions work equally as well for videos, podcasts, webinars, presentations, etc.:
- Why am I reading this? This simple question gives purpose to my reading and helps me compartmentalize new knowledge. If it’s a video or webinar, why am I watching this? If it’s a presentation or podcast, why am I listening to this?
- What is the naked idea? Some ideas are easier to expose than others. The goal is to make the idea as simple as possible, but not simpler. Naked ideas are stripped free of jargon and context. As a general rule, a 4th grader should have no problem following along.
- How might the idea work in my context? This is where knowledge meets action and behavior. With the exception of core values, I’m not aware of an idea that works in any situation without modification. If the idea is good, it will work in most situations, most of the time. Determining the proper form, fit and function of the idea is goal of this question.
Applying theory to practice is a skill – the more you work at it, the better you’ll get. The best practitioners make complex ideas simple and accessible. They find practical ways to put good ideas to work. Where others see chaos and noise, they see patterns and opportunities. But perhaps most importantly, skilled practitioners possess an intellectual curiosity that creates an unending well of fresh ideas and creative solutions to seemingly impossible challenges.