Shallow Thoughts vs. Deep Wisdom
When someone says a book “changed their life”, what does that mean exactly?
To me, it’s when a book changes a fundamental belief or value in your life... enough for you to not only change your view on something… BUT ALSO your habits, routines and how you act as a person.
In some cases, the change is so drastic, you uproot your current life and start a new one.
I would consider that a “deep” book. It’s not a book you read and ignore, it’s a book that leaves a lasting permanence on how you live your life as a human being.
At Osmosis, we decided to take this a little further with a scale from 1 to 5. 1 being shallow and 5 being deep.
We did this because, as you may know, the self-help and business book industry is a little broken.
Many of these books are put out by self-proclaimed gurus, consultants and “coaches” (who use the book as a credibility device)... to upsell you to online courses, programs or consulting.
Now, let me be clear -- there’s nothing wrong with that… as long as the book delivers value. As in, it has substance and lessons you can use… ideally backed up with research like Gallup Polls, HBR studies, or unique real world experiences.
But many are not, and waste 200+ pages telling you how great they are, boasting about their (very anecdotal) accomplishments and sharing the barest outline of what they may help you with… if you only go to their website to pay them thousands.
Again - I want to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with this business model… as long as the book is good in and of itself.
Now, there are also “deep” books that take reading many times over, at different points in your life, to fully grasp and understand the wisdom contained in the words. One could argue the Bible is such a book… or the Tao Te Ching… or books by Ram Dass, Pema Chodron or Thích Nhất Hạhn.
While these books of wisdom can be summarized to their core ideas… oftentimes, it is in the meditative (and reflective) reading of them that you get the fullest value. These are books you should read yourself for the full experience of it.
Now, if you want to geek out with me more, keep reading. I’m going to break down the rankings further. But be warned -- I’m about to go into super-taxonomical-nerd-mode...
Weighing Book Depth (Super Geeky Stuff)
Books in the 4.0 - 5.0 range fall under the “books of wisdom” I just mentioned like the Bible or the Tao Te Ching.
We could also include books like Aurelius’s Meditations, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
These are books that, by nature, are a little “poetic”. They share lessons on “how to live”, but not in concrete, explicit steps. Most “how to” books give you specific use cases like: “if abc happens, you should do xyz”. Not here.
Books at this level ask you to take a step back and reassess your entire framework of how you see the world… then expect you to make decisions from this new perspective intuitively.
What makes these books unique is that a lot of their “profound wisdom” is sensible, but difficult to implement. They take years of practice. And if you read these books at different stages of your life, you extract more meaning each and every time…. Or you reinterpret the text.
On that note -- biographies and history books also fall under the 4.0 - 5.0 range. Real life is messy. Events don’t always happen in a sequence that makes sense. Relationships are complicated. We’re people after all.
So when you read a biography or history, there’s profound wisdom to be found… but it’s a kaleidoscope where different people will see different meanings.
In short, 4.0-5.0 books are re-readable because of their opaque, abstract nature.
Books in the 3.0 - 3.9 range also provides you with a new framework of thinking, but are more concrete in their advice, suggested strategies, and recommended methods.
Cal Newport’s Deep Work is an example that comes to mind. It spends the first half of the book defining and defending the concept of what “deep work” is and all its benefits… and the second half showing you several tips, ideas and tactics on how to implement deep work in your life.
In a sense, books at this level are like rulebooks for how to behave in certain parts of your life… whether its business, finance, relationships, or whatever the book covers.
The first half is usually nailing down definitions and concepts… comparing them against beliefs you may currently have… and showing you why their way of thinking is better. The second half usually gives you a step-by-step system on how to implement their concepts in your life, business or whatever.
Books in the 2.0 - 2.9 range, to me, are books with good, solid foundational lessons, principles and common wisdom… ideas that aren’t exactly new or groundbreaking or even deep, but are definitely worth following because it makes you a decent human being, leader, spouse, or whatever.
A great example of this style is a lot of leadership books. They usually rehash well-worn lessons, but from a unique experience like a sports coach (Phil Jackson), or a former Navy SEAL (Jocko Willink), or a Fortune 100 CEO (Bob Iger).
Books like these don’t push business innovation forward per se… but that’s not their job. They’re here to remind us of core, foundational lessons that have applied to human beings since civilization began.
You could probably read biographies on Joan of Arc, Gandhi and Malcolm X and find similar “core lessons” in how they led movements… despite them existing at different times in history.
Books in the 1.0 - 1.9 range regurgitates common knowledge, principles and lessons… but without the fresh perspective of a 2.0 - 2.9 book.
It’s basically a collection of platitudes, tropes and empty motivational material. It states the obvious and in some cases, the ideas are so dated it’s not applicable anymore.
And in some edge cases, these books are based on false premises, pseudo-science or even the wild ravings of an insane person.
These books are basically a waste of time. We will probably never summarize these books at Osmosis… unless it’s April Fool’s or I’m trolling you (which will probably happen more often than you expect).
And there you go. “Book Depth”. And if you haven’t read about the other metric we measure books by, “Book Density”, you should check it out.