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Good Data For What I Write Next

The Data-Analysis-Decision-Action process in A Spy’s Guide To Thinking isn’t static. It isn’t something you do one time. It’s born from Boyd’s OODA Loop.

As a loop, you cycle through the DADA process as many times as you can. After you act, you observe the results. You collect new data. You feed the new data into your analysis. So you make better decisions each time around.

You get feedback. And you use it to inform what you do next.

You can have a problem at any of the stages. You can have a problem getting data that feeds into an analytical framework that will inform a better decision. You can have a problem getting to a decision that leads to action. But without good data, the rest of it won’t happen.

Data can be bad for a lot of reasons. Data can be anecdotal and not represent the whole. Data can be the result of someone else’s action rather than yours. And people can send you false data in order to mislead you, like when a fighter feints with his left to open you up to his right.

When you’re collecting data, you want at least three things:

1. Enough datapoints to get past the sample size problem.

2. Data tied as closely to your actions as possible.

3. When you’re collecting data on people, you want data that results from a self-interested action to minimize the chance that the data is misleading.

(Should I write a book called A Spy’s Guide To Data? If so, email me at and put “A Spy’s Guide To Data” in the subject line).

Authors who publish on Kindle get several streams of data. You get sales reports. You get reader reviews. And you also get a stream of data via the “popular highlights” section. Kindle will tell you which sections of your book have been most highlighted by readers.

For A Spy’s Guide To Thinking, the most highlighted sentence was: “The best way to win a zero-sum game is to be good at positive-sum games." (2,370 highlights as of today)

For A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, the most highlighted section was: "Most strategies fail because they don't follow what game theorists Dixit and Nalebuff call the First Rule of Strategy. It's a simple rule: Look forward and reason backward." (222 highlights as of today)

The “popular highlights” data meets all three of the above requirements for good data:

1. It gives authors lots of datapoints (Hundreds or thousands of highlights, much better than a dozen or so newspaper reviews).

2. It’s direct feedback on an author’s writing (unlike sales data, which can be skewed by marketing, cover design, and other factors).

3. It results from a self-interested action (readers are highlighting the passage for themselves, not for the author).

It’s good data, so then what?

How do we analyze it in a way that fits into a decision and action?

Here’s where it’s important to remember something about the Data-Analysis-Decision-Action process: “Good thinkers, including intelligence agencies, don’t start with data . . . Intelligence agencies start with the decision. Like scientists start with the hypothesis. That’s how we know what we’re looking for.” (from A Spy's Guide To Thinking).

You start with the decision. You don’t start with the data.

People who start with data are like the drunk looking for his lost wallet under the streetlamp. Just because it’s easier to see in a certain place doesn’t mean the answer is there.

You start with the decision. You ask questions that will inform your decision. Then you go to the data.

Now that we know the “popular highlights” section on Kindle is good data, does that data help us answer any questions we already have?

When you write books, your biggest question is always the same: “What do readers want to read next?”

The most popular highlight in Thinking was about zero-sum and positive-sum games.

Those elements were already going to be in the Strategy book. But with the data from Thinking, I emphasized zero-sum and positive-sum games even more.

And knowing “Look forward and reason backward” was the top highlight of the Strategy book, that became an important element of my fiction book for teens The Adventures of Young John Quincy Adams: Sea Chase.

The decision was to give readers what those highlighted concepts in the next book. Turning decision into action was easy.

I wrote them in.


Another data source for me is what you say in the reviews at Amazon.

If you’d like to leave a review for A Spy’s Guide To Thinking, you can do it here.

If you’d like to leave a review for A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, you can do it here.

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