The Cereal Box (Or, How To Be The Smartest Person You Know)

A very long time ago – yes, even before the internet, if you were to allow yourself to believe that such a time existed – a certain author was asked what one book he would take with him if he were stranded on a desert island.

Normally a question like that is designed to see how sophisticated the askee’s tastes are. Will he say the Bible? The Complete Works of Shakespeare? Great Expectations? What profundity awaits us today?

In this case, the answer was a little more prosaic than that: “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuiding.”

Indeed.

Let’s start with a story.

A little while back (this was after the internet, just to set the scene), I was on Amazon looking at a book that had recently come out and received a number of mixed reviews.

One group of reviews fell into the category of “This book is even more powerful than Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding, and if you owned it you would be granted wings to fly yourself off any island you choose.  It will change your life! YOUR LIFE!!!”

(Five star ratings are often like that.)

Another group of reviews – the three and four star reviews – fell into the category of “Here’s what I liked and here’s what I didn’t, and why.”

(Three and four star ratings are where you generally get the opinions of people who read all the way through and paid attention. You’ll get a more balanced story in many of them.)

Another group of reviews – the one and two star variety – fell into the category of “I hate this book! It didn’t tell me HOW to do anything! You just talked about what other people did. Where are the steps?”

Where are the steps, indeed.

Why people don’t generally tell you the steps.

There are two types of business books or business training you can buy – the general kind and the specialized kind.

In the general kind, you get an overview of concepts and ideas that can help you figure out what to do.

In the specialized kind, you get very detailed step-by-step instructions on exactly what you should do, in which order, from start to finish.

However, there’s the tricky part. The person writing the book or the training has no way of knowing what YOU should do, because they don’t know where you are starting from and what “finished” means to you.

They don’t know what applies to you and what doesn’t, or what resources you have access to, or what country you live in, or how much money or time you have to invest in your business, or whether you are trying to build an empire versus just making $30K to quit your day job.

They don’t know if you’re a fast learner or a slow learner, if you’ve got people to help you or you’re going it alone, and how fast you need to make it all work out.

The only way for them to know that would be to write for such a specific audience, in such a specific situation that 99% of the market would be excluded.

So they go generalized, and cover the bases from a general perspective, and count on you being a Cereal Box Person.

Let’s talk about the Cereal Box.

Picture a box of cereal.

Generally, there’s stuff on the outside of the box. Sometimes there’s a free prize inside.

If you bought the box of cereal for the prize, like any rational human, you’re going to dig straight down the second you open the box and root around for the prize, ignoring the cereal.

Which makes sense. When there’s a free prize inside, find me any kid who gives a second thought to the cereal – or the box.

If you buy a book or a piece of training for the free prize inside, you’re going to be on the edge of your seat waiting for the good stuff that will finally tell you exactly what you need to do to make everything better right now.

Sadly, those prizes don’t exist – except for incredibly specialized situations.

If the book you bought was “Set up a WordPress Blog, Step-By-Step,” you’d probably get your free prize right way. It’s a cookie-cutter outcome. It doesn’t get more specialized than that.

If the book you bought was “How to Make A Really Successful Blog,” sorry, no free prize. No cookie-cutter outcome. This is a generalized product.

And to get what you need out of a generalized product, you need to know how to look at a cereal box.

Here’s the part you should stop and read if you’re scanning.

People who are successful rarely become that way because they followed a formula.

More often than not it’s because they paid attention to stuff that was unrelated to their unique situation.

Then they thought about how they could apply and adapt that stuff to solve their problems.

That wording is important.

The answers don’t find you.  You have to find the answers.

There is a difference between asking “What should I do?” and “What does all this make me think of?”

With the first, you’re looking for a free prize inside.

With the second, you’re looking for ideas so you can think critically about what to do with them.

In other words, you’re extrapolating.

You’re asking “Is there anything here that I could apply to my situation?”

I’ve often said that the habitually successful people could read the back of a cereal box and come up with the answer to “What should I do,” because they have practiced extrapolating enough that it’s second nature.

Not because they’re smarter in general.

It’s because they’re trying to be smarter in specific.

These are the Cereal Box People.

They keep their eyes open for ideas and answers.  They expect to find them.  And more often than not, they do.

They see headlines on magazines and think about how they can rewrite them for their sales emails. They see random books on the clearance table and get ideas for new books they could write. They see the the branding on a box of cereal and it sparks an idea that improves their brand.

And most importantly, when they see something in a book that they feel doesn’t apply to them, they ask themselves “Is there anything in this that COULD give me an idea?”

Then they leave a three-star review on Amazon saying “This book didn’t apply to my situation, but it gave me some useful things to think about.”

Think back to the times when something random sparked an idea for you.

That’s what generalized books and training products are there for.

To give you something to extrapolate from.

No book, training product, seminar or online course will ever be able to tell you exactly what to do.  But they can give you ideas, examples, frameworks and starting points that you can extrapolate from.

So the next time you’re wishing there was just something out there telling you what to DO, remember that you’re already capable of figuring it out.

It’s just not second nature yet.

So start practicing.

Do that, and the most generalized of books can give you all the answers you need.

(In the meantime, come join our newsletter.  It’s like a cereal box that arrives via email.)

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.