Phil Town’s Rule #1, Part #5

[This is the final part of a multi-part review of Phil Town's book Rule #1, The Simple Strategy for Successful Investing in Only 15 Minutes a Week! If you haven't already, you might want to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and/or Part 4 first.]

Does anybody really believe that they can buy a book containing a sure-fire formula for riches? I do not mean conceding that it is remotely possible, I mean truly believing that Town’s book, or one of its thousands of competitors, will disclose a magic technique to the reader. I am sure that there are a few out there that are that gullible, but I don’t buy the idea that Town’s large readership is made up entirely of such folk.

So maybe my efforts to demonstrate that Rule #1 does not work were a waste of time. If Town’s audience does not really expect his scheme to make them rich, then why bother showing that it will not? Moreover, if we accept that there are very few people out there who are both in the habit of reading books and naïve enough to think that reading a particular one will make them rich, how do these books become bestsellers?

For me, the most meaningful revelation from Rule #1 is just how impractical it is to carry out what Town advises. I expected that his formula for picking stocks would not work in the sense that the stocks picked would not do particularly well. I did not expect that it would not work in the sense that it would barely function, that it would be so hard to use it to pick stocks at all. And you might think that this kind of not working would be a big problem for the sales of the book. A scheme that is easy to operate but does not pick winning stocks at least has the virtue that it could take a year or two before the readers realize it is defective. A scheme that is more or less inoperable from the start would, you would think, be noticed right off and become a hindrance to climbing the bestseller lists.

The flaw in that logic is that it assumes that readers actually attempt to follow Town’s advice and discover it is defective. But just as the vast majority of Town’s readers does not, in the cold light of day, really think that his scheme will make them rich, the vast majority also does not bother to try to follow it. Why would they? They know deep down that it will not work, so why put in the considerable effort required to shatter the illusion that it might work? Which then begs the question, why buy the book at all?

Because Rule #1, like nearly all books (and seminars, for that matter) is, ultimately, primarily a form of entertainment.

Consider television cooking shows, a genre that dates back to the earliest days of the medium. Although nominally instructive, it is clear that almost all viewers will never cook the elaborate dish that the host prepares. They watch not to so they can follow the instructions, but because it is entertaining. If you are into food, watching a skilled chef prepare and discuss a dish is fun. You can, at least in the abstract, imagine yourself preparing and even eating it, and that is enjoyable for many. I know people who buy and read cookbooks on the same basis.

Or consider cowboy hats. Putting one on has no chance of turning you into a cowboy. But it helps with the fantasy of being one. (In reality, it is probably not a great job: long hours, low pay, lots of big dumb smelly animals, and no Internet access.)

The fantasy that goes with Rule #1, and other books like it, is that you will read them and become rich. That any modestly intelligent reader knows, at some level, that this is really unlikely, does not diminish their appeal. A person can read the book and imagine becoming rich just like the ordinary people in the inspirational stories included in the text. That some of the instructions are, in fact, impractical is unimportant. They only need to seem practical to somebody who will never attempt them. Just as the host of a cooking show can get away with using obscure ingredients or a tricky technique requiring years of practice, Town can get away with vague instructions that do not produce the desired result.

So in a narrow sense, I am willing to forgive these books for being as bad as they are. They fill an entertainment role for some, and, apparently, do it well. The problem is that personal finance is still an area that American adults need to master. After you are done watching the celebrity chef prepare Cajun crawfish stew, somebody still needs to cook dinner.

[Links to parts of this review: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5]

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