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How to Have Big Ideas

Updated: May 1, 2020

Friends call our apartment “the library.”

There’s no TV — only paintings, plants, bookshelves, and books. Oh, and a dog named Oliver.

Sarabeth is responsible for contributing most of the fiction in our library. I’m responsible for contributing most of our nonfiction.

As the household expert on nonfiction writing, I’d like to posit that there are two kinds of business book:

1. Big Idea

2. Prescriptive How-To

Big Idea books are exactly what they sound like: a proposed new way of looking at your career, life, or field. These books tend to convey just one earth-shattering theory. You can usually recognize Big Idea books by their circular nature.

You will understand the concept of a Big Idea book by the end of the first chapter (or, let’s be honest, the back cover). Then the author spends the rest of the book unpacking evidence to support their thesis. Consider authors like Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, or Cal Newport as a few examples.

Prescriptive books need even less explanation. I read these books for the same reason someone else might watch a how-to video on YouTube. It’s a self-paced method for acquiring a new skill. Think Wiley’s For Dummies series.

There’s almost always some overlap between these types of books. A prescriptive book tends to convey a handful of interesting ideas and Big Idea books usually offer some ways to make their idea actionable.

But here’s the biggest difference: Every business person wants to write the Big Idea book. When successful these books become household names. They get purchased by Big-Five publishing houses and receive nationwide distribution to stores like Barnes & Noble and Target. They have a chance at earning a spot on reputable bestseller lists.

Prescriptive books, on the other hand, seldom become bestsellers. In fact, they tend to only attract smaller industry publishing houses, and receive very limited publicity or distribution. You don’t hear about these books if you’re not in the field. They’re only read by people trying to overcome a technical challenge or gain a new skill.

But here’s the catch — the secret, if you will. You don't come up with consistent big ideas by jumping from one Big Idea book to the next. If that's all you read, your own ideas will only be slight pivots or variations of someone else’s Big Idea.

Instead, you have to dig where the dots haven’t yet been connected.

If you want to continuously generate new big ideas for your blog or future books, you must delve into the prescriptive books. As you learn how things work, you position yourself to notice bottlenecks in common systems, find unspoken themes within your field, or create new concepts. Reading prescriptive books is a formula for regularly coming up with original ideas.

Go to the unglamorous places to find their hidden gems.


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