A Tale of Two Books

I love reading. For quite some time, I hadn’t managed to read as much as I hoped to, and then, fashionably late, I discovered audiobooks. There’s a semi-religious debate about the difference between reading a book and listening to one and which is more effective. One might argue that if I “read” while walking, driving, or doing the dishes, I am not fully immersed in the text. Others might say that listening to the text while isolating oneself from external sounds creates a bubble that makes the experience more immersive. For me, it was an easy choice: Whether listening is 10% less effective or 20% more effective than reading, audiobooks have enabled me to experience more books, and that’s exactly what I wanted. 

This article is about two books I’ve read recently. It is not a review, though. This is an article about my experience with these two very different books and what I learned when reading them in close proximity. Neither one of these books needs my recommendation. Both of them are highly acclaimed and for an excellent reason. They capture powerful ideas, and I learned a lot from them. This is not an article about these ideas, though. It is an article about how these ideas are expressed. 

When I read a good book, I try to learn from it at two levels. I try to apply the good ideas in the book in my life. In parallel, I notice how the author captures their ideas in writing and how they are communicated to us, the audience. Any text I read (or listen to) teaches me something about writing. Comparing two texts is often even more enlightening, not because one is better but because each author has made different choices in how the text unfolds. 

Writing, after all, is a continuous act of choosing.

Science and Stories 

Adam Grant needs no introduction, but just in the remote case his name doesn’t ring a bell, look up one of his TED talks, podcasts, or best-selling books. One of them is Think Again.

The premise of Think Again is simple: the only way to advance is to open the door to the possibility that we are wrong. We need to get around our natural biases and think like scientists: treat everything as a thesis, look for ways to validate it, and always be ready for another thesis to replace what we know today. 

Grant is a great storyteller, and from the first sentence, it is clear that stories will play a significant role in the book. Every chapter revolves around one central story, with additional smaller ones Grant uses to walk us through his thesis. The stories Grant tells are engaging and surprising. We can relate to them, and many will resonate with the reader. The stories act as a vehicle through which we go from one idea to the next, making the ideas more vivid and memorable. Even if you don’t remember the thesis details, you are bound to remember many of the stories told in the book.

Unlike many nonfiction authors who use stories to explain and promote an idea, Grant didn’t draw his conclusions from the stories; he used research and scientific evidence to build his thesis. Only then did he look for stories that would bring the data, the numbers, and the hard evidence to life in a vivid and engaging way. Everything he recommends is derived from research, which doesn’t make it an absolute truth for all eternity; it is just the best thesis based on the current science. 

This blend of scientific data, a summary of peer-reviewed research, and engaging stories is not easy to craft. Adan Grant manages to make it seem natural and easy, though. The stories tap into our memory and emotion; the hard evidence is aimed at our logic and skepticism. Together, they deliver Grant’s ideas and make them stick. 

Insights and Meditations 

Rick Rubin’s book is entirely different. If you don’t know Rick Rubin, you are still likely to have heard the music he produced. Working with artists like Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, and dozens, if not more, of others, Rick Rubin shaped the music industry as we know it. In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Last year, he published his first book titled The Creative Act: A Way of Being.

There are numerous books about creativity out there. Many of them offer tips, tricks, and (my personal “favorite”) processes to come up with creative ideas. I’ve never believed creativity can be reduced to the level of a process. When I thought (and wrote) about creativity, I thought of a setup we must create to enable it. The choices we make regarding how we observe the world, how we treat challenges, at what level we connect to things, who we interact with, and whether we allow ourselves to play affect the chances we will come up with creative ideas. Rick Rubin has done a fantastic job capturing this notion in a text that feels timeless; almost every paragraph in his book feels like it was discovered, not written. 

Unlike Think Again, Rick Rubin’s book barely uses stories and doesn’t cite any scientific research. In his own words: “Nothing in this book is known to be true. It’s a reflection on what I’ve noticed — not facts so much as thoughts.” Rubin does not attempt to justify his insights or prove they are correct using science, research, or even anecdotal stories. Instead, he merely offers himself. His text reads like a stream of consciousness. It is well articulated, and I’m sure a lot of thought was given to each chapter. Nevertheless, the result seems to flow naturally without stopping to look for evidence or explain how he came up with his ideas about creativity. Rubin doesn’t need to prove anything. It is up to us to take the pieces that resonate with us and try them for ourselves. And it works perfectly. 

Much of Rick Rubin’s text reads like meditation. If you happen to listen to the audiobook version with Rubin’s mesmerizing voice and the symbolic gong between chapters, you can literally close your eyes and immerse yourself in the experience. It’s like listening to a wise person teaching you about life. I don’t typically read the same book twice, but following the experience of listening to this book, the ideas as well as the way they are presented, I’m sure I will find many opportunities to replay a chapter, not necessarily to find something concrete, but rather to get inspired. The Creative Act is like a good, warm soup that is both delicious and nutritious; nothing can beat that on a cold day. 

Design in Service of an Idea 

Many people who start writing, whether a book, a newsletter, or a blog, look for an optimal design — a structure that will guide them in forming their text. When writing fiction, many seek advice on organizing the story so it unfolds in a captivating way. With non-fiction, people seek guidance on “the right” mixture of ideas, data, references, and stories and how to organize all these bits to express their ideas in the best way possible. Some people don’t acknowledge the importance of thinking about the design of the text. Among those who do, many look for templates they can use to pour their ideas into. 

There are many reasons templates are ineffective for writing content, and  I’ve listed some of them in the previous issue. But the most profound reason for avoiding templates surfaces when reading Think Again and The Creative Act almost side by side. Design is never generic. What makes a design great is that it serves the idea you wish to communicate to your audience. 

In design, there’s rarely right and wrong. Not universally, that is. Some design decisions might be more popular or easier to digest, but ultimately, the only thing that matters is what impact a particular design decision has on the content and the audience. 

Is citing research and statistics and wrapping them with grand stories that occupy half of the text a good design decision? For Adam Grant, it worked perfectly. It works because he is a skillful storyteller and an acclaimed researcher. But above all, this design decision works because it is in the service of the idea Adam Grant promotes. He is not just talking about the importance of the scientific approach; he makes scientific data an essential part of the design. In contrast, Rick Rubin doesn’t cite even a single piece of research, and he barely uses stories to prove his point. Is this a wise design decision? It’s the best decision if your thesis is that creativity is primarily a mindset, a way to tune into the world, absorb, play with what you find, and create something not because it is “true” but because it feels true to you. If that is your thesis, then no scientific data is relevant. Focusing on the author’s insights and what he feels to be true is a design decision that brings this idea to life. 

Writing the thesis of Think Again without scientific data is unimaginable. Describing the creative act as personal and “proving” that with numerous stories of other people makes the message weaker. Both design approaches are powerful or disastrous depending on the context: what the author wishes to achieve. 

Before you start writing, consider the design of your text: What choices will help you tell your story? When shooting a scene in a film, the decision to use one camera and a single shot or multiple cameras and snappy cuts between angles and perspectives affects the narrative; when used right, it becomes part of the narrative. In your text, the flow of ideas, the length of each part, the usage of examples, stories, hard data, rhythm, sound, and pace — all these aspects affect the reader as much as the core idea you want to convey. They are more than merely aesthetic choices — they can become part of the story you tell. 

There are no universally good or bad design decisions. Design should always be in service of an idea. That doesn’t mean all design decisions are equal. The only universal advice I can give you is: don’t waive the opportunity to think about the design of your text. Thinking about what serves your text best will always result in more compelling content that makes a greater impact.

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