Recommendations: Care Before You Share

In a past article we recommended reading as a little thing that can make a big difference. If you’re accepting of the suggestion, you may be wondering what kind of reading you should do. Is there a recommended reading list we can offer? Rory Vaden in Take the Stairs notes, “According to one major American publisher 95% of all books that are purchased are never completely read…. 70% of all books ever purchased are never even opened.” With grim statistics like this, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the point of making a recommendation, yet recommendations may seem more numerous than books. Everywhere we look someone is offering a recommendation on what we should be reading. We have recommendations amongst best sellers. We have stores like Costco offering regular book recommendations. We have recommendations for summer, spring, fall, and winter. Recommendations to read while curled up by the fireplace. Recommendations to read for sitting by the pool. We have recommendations for current business books, classic business books, more options than flavors at your favorite ice cream shop. What most of these kinds of recommendations have in common is that they are being made for the benefit of the recommender and not the recipient.

Recommendations can also come from experts. Those with a lifetime of experience in a field may offer recommended reading on a subject with which they are deeply familiar. These recommendations can be either initiated by them or others can be requesting the recommendation of an expert. In each of these cases, the recommender isn’t trying to sell something other than a demonstration of their expertise. The recommendation may be purer than our first group. These offerings may be done with the best of intentions. The expert is trying to help provide guidance to others. However, our perspective is personal. In Steal like an Artist, Austin Kleon reminds us, “All advice is autobiographical.” Kleon writes, “It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” Recommendations reveal details about the recommender. Advice can either be driven by mistakes made or things that went well. As well intended as it may be, it fits the circumstances and narrative of the life of the person giving it which may be wildly and widely different than that of the receiver.

Derek Sivers in an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast recounts an experience he had when meeting Tim Ferriss for the first time. They enjoyed a great conversation together. Towards the end of their discussion, Tim and Derek offered each other the name of the book that had been most impactful to them. Still buzzing from the quality of their conversation they each rushed out the next day to acquire the book recommended by the other. They looked forward to learning from a book a highly respected peer had offered as life changing. Each sat down and consumed the contents like a starved dog. Both completed the book loved by the other, but were left wanting. When they bumped into each other some months down the road, they offered that the recommended reading hadn’t resonated. The wisdom so cherished by one, was wasted on the other.

Struck by this, Derek revisited his recommendation. It is a book he had read several times early in his working life. As he was getting started, the message hit home. It was exactly what he needed to hear at the time. Decades later he re-read what he had been telling himself and others had been such an impactful book. This time around, the words fell flat. Derek was less awestruck this time around. He wondered why? Was it because he had so internalized the lessons of the book that they seemed deeply ingrained and no longer new and invigorating? Was it something else? He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it did open his eyes to the difficulty of making recommendations.

What Sivers and Ferriss both realized is what Dorothy L. Sayers observed, “Books… are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ‘em, then we grow out of ‘em and leave ‘em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.” We may be recommending things that meant something to us a long time ago while we’ve continued to grow in a different direction. This is one of the limitations of depending on someone’s answer to the well intended question of what is the best book you’ve ever read or what books have been most impactful on your life. The question isn’t wrong, it is too simple. It ignores the context of time and nature of impact. Was it the best in terms of making a difference to a personal or career issue? Was it the best in terms of when you were 15 or 45? How do the answers of the recommender compare to where the person seeking the recommendation is? If there is a gap between the two, how useful is the recommendation?

Earlier this year, I attended a session of a virtual conference catering to the insurance industry. The presenter was a recruiter. She led her presentation with an acknowledgement that she wasn’t much of a reader. Though she hadn’t read many books, she had recently been given a particular book related to her area of expertise. She then went on to note that she hadn’t yet read this book but proudly held it up, showing it to her audience while recommending it as a worthwhile read on the subject of hiring and recruiting in insurance. Surely this was intended to be comedic relief. I wondered whether this was a parody honoring the late Chris Farley’s SNL caricature of the motivational speaker.

Offering a book recommendation on a book that hasn’t been read by someone that isn’t much of a reader doesn’t do much for the credibility of the person making the recommendation, or for the book itself. All recommendations clearly aren’t equal. How can we recommend something we haven’t read? It would be different if she had said here’s a new book written by an HR expert that has written a series of past books that I have learned and applied a great deal from. I haven’t yet read this new book, but I look forward to doing so and will offer a summary of it on my website by next month. If you’re interested in a summary of this book, sign up for my newsletter and you’ll receive this summary within the month. If she had taken this approach, her credibility may have either grown or at least remained level. Instead, she gave us little reason to continue listening to her. If she wasn’t willing to take herself seriously, why would her audience?

Recommendations are relative. Just as in research studies, sample size matters. If you’re telling me about the best book you’ve ever read and why I have to read it, yet you’ve only read one book, how seriously should I take the suggestion? However well read we may like to think we are, what we have consumed is likely a drop in the bucket of what is available. Recommendations may also follow the recency bias. We tend to recommend the thing that most easily comes to mind which may be the most recent thing we’ve consumed. We remember what we had for our most recent meal more than what we had for supper two weeks ago. Additionally, recommendations may be motivated by a desire to make the recommender seem smart or current. Recommendations may be made because other notable figures are recommending the same thing.

All we can do is offer “insight” colored by the lens of hindsight. We should be very careful trying to offer “recommendations”. We should be even more careful receiving them. All of this is not to suggest that we should avoid recommendations all together. We should be open to receiving, but consider the context. Accept that recommendations are driven by the world of the recommender. Realize that what matters to them, then may not mean much to you, now. Recommendations may be a comment more about the recommender than the material being recommended.

Do you have friends that forward links to you more frequently than others? Do they send just the link to a video or article saying nothing other than watch or read this? Do you have other friends who may offer something infrequently and when they do it includes a clip or description of why it is worth watching or reading? Perhaps they offer, “When I saw this article, I thought of you and the situation you were facing we talked about last week. In it the author offered the following description for handling what sounds a lot like your circumstance. I hope it helps.” Which recommendation do you prefer? Which one are you more likely to click on? A recommendation that takes the time to explain why is more valuable than a link. More valuable still is a recommendation that is personalized. If someone has taken the time to connect something they’ve experienced with how it may matter to you in your personal life, you’re more likely to engage in and appreciate the material. “You should read X” is a lot less valuable than “I enjoyed reading x because I learned about Y and Z. If you’re interested in Y and Z, you may want to consider taking a closer look at book X.”

If you’re not sure what to read, taking a look at something recommended by someone you respect or admire is fine, though the best recommendations are those that are personalized. A recommendation based on empathy for the recipient is the most valuable kind. The best recommendations are those where the recommender knows both the subject matter and the person to whom a recommendation is being made. It is a perfect marriage between material and person. It is about meeting the recipient where they are. Consider getting a recommendation from someone you respect and care about that offers what Michael Matthews writes in Bigger Leaner Stronger, “I love and appreciate you and want to help you live your best life, so I got you this. Read it.” Do you think you may be more interested in taking a closer look at what you received?

In How to Be Content, Stephen Harrison writes, “A reader’s preferences and sympathies change with time and circumstances; we react most intensely to the works and writers who suit our own current situation and concerns.”

Another way to consider what to read is to embrace the Lindy effect. The Lindy effect theorizes that we can expect the future life of some non-perishable things to be strongly correlated with how old they are presently. That is, the longer something has been around today, the longer it will last in the future. If something is new today, we can be more doubtful about its ability to be around in the future. This theory places greater weight on selecting books to read which are older today. We are encouraged to read the works of those written a long time ago that remain relevant today as these types of messages will remain relevant well into the future.

In the 1920s, Arnold Bennett wrote How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. Bennett wrote, “One man cannot tell another man where the other man wants to go.” This is a risk of making recommendations of any kind whether movie, magazine, meal, or book. We can’t tell someone where they want to go. We can communicate where we’ve been and what we enjoyed along the way, but for a recommendation to resonate it has to be tuned into the frequency familiar to the person receiving it. We should take greater care before we rush to share. Making recommendations best suited for others is work. Work to get to know where that individual is today and where they want to go. It is about finding something that meets them where they are not where you are. The best book for you is just like the best exercise, nutrition, or financial planning program for you. It is the one that you will adopt and pursue. It is not necessarily the one that worked for me. It is not the one that worked for a celebrity. It is the one that you will choose to do and continue to pursue.

I recommend reading. Anything. For fun. It’s a choice not a chore. Reading a book about dirty jokes is better than not reading. Listening to an audiobook is a great start. You don’t have to chain yourself to a chair to read. You can enjoy the audiobook while going for a walk or on a drive. Read because life’s too short to figure things out all on your own. Read because you care enough to try to figure out a better way of doing things. Read because most don’t. Read because you can.

“For those who have not been readers, my advice is to read what entertains you. Reading is fun. Reading is an adventure. It is not important what you read at first, only that you read.”

—Louis L’Amour