I’m reading a wonderful book right now—How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen from Harvard Business School. It was written in the wake of ethical scandals by some of the “best and brightest” graduates of that institution—such as Jeff Skilling, a classmate of Christensen’s.
Animating the book are three questions:
How can I be sure that:
I will be successful and happy in my career?
My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?
I live a life of integrity— and stay out of jail?
What a strong premise for a book!
Christensen’s answers are fascinating. But what interests me at the moment is the role of theory in guiding our thinking and our writing. Consider this passage from Christensen’s book:
Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.
I read that paragraph several times. It points to the highest good that authors of self-help, business, and other “how-to” books can offer the world—a real, honest-to-goodness theory.
Theory is one of the most understood words in the English language. We often hear the term used derisively—as in “that idea sounds good in theory, but it will never work in reality.”
Whenever you hear this, know that you are listening to someome who’s truly clueless about theory.
A theory is a set of assertions that state causal relationships between observed phenomena. It is not a set of vague, half-assed guesses about how the world works.
A genuine theory allows you to predict the consequences of your actions. If a set of assertions doesn’t do that, then it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory.
This is why I’m excited by books such as Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life and Mind and Emotions. They are grounded in a theory—Relational Frame Theory, to be exact. These are examples of the gold standard of how-to books—those that are wedded to scientifically-tested theory.
Standing below these books are books based on models. Whereas theories describe why things happen, models describe how things happen. Though this is a lesser level knowledge, it can help us a lot. Examples from the self-help literature are books based on Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Ellis didn’t convince me why people make themselves miserable, but he did a hell of a job in describing how they make themselves miserable.
At a lower level are books based on anecdotes, such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I don’t find theories or models in such books. They’re not research-based, and their explanatory and predictive power is often nil. Even so, they can be illuminating and even useful in the conduct of daily life.
So in summary, we’re talking about three levels of writing:
- Books based on a theory
- Books based on a model
- Books based on anecdotes
If you truly understand the differences between these levels—and where your own book stands on this hierarchy—you will place yourself among the top 10 percent of nonfiction authors.