Why You Should Read Biographies (and 10 to Add to Your Reading List)

I recently had the opportunity to grab lunch with a former executive who led HR at several Fortune 500 companies. Midway through lunch, the conversation turned to the importance of gaining experience. He stated:

There’s no substitute for experience. But if you don’t have firsthand experience, the next best thing is to learn from the experiences of others. That’s why I love reading biographies.

Biographies help us gain insight into how successful people handle crises and solve complex problems. They invite us into people’s lives, allowing us to observe them as they grapple with challenges and make important decisions.

In some instances, biographies can stand as a warning, helping us know what pitfalls we should avoid. They open our eyes to the world, allowing us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This ultimately leads to greater understanding and better decision making.

In short, reading biographies will help you whether you’re an experienced executive or just launching your career. Here are my 10 favorites.

10. Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

Talent is critical to success, but it’s not enough. To achieve greatness in any field you need to couple talent with hard work. And Michael Jordan is the epitome of hard work. It’s been a year since I read his biography and I’m still awestruck by Jordan’s competitive drive. He aspired for greatness at a young age, worked his tail off throughout his career, and demanded excellence of everyone around him. It’s hard to study his life and not feel inspired to exert a little more effort in my pursuits.

9. Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

While many celebrity memoirs stay at surface level, Agassi’s bio is different. He is brutally honest with himself. You get to know him at an intimate, personal level. And you find that he, like most of us, is a very complicated person. Agassi’s dad forced him to play tennis at a young age. He required Andre to hit more than 2,500 balls a day and a million balls a year. Agassi grew to despise the sport, yet he still played into his mid-thirties when he no longer needed the money. His life is a paradox. He hates tennis, as he shares repeatedly in the book, yet his identity is integrally tied to the game. I found Agassi’s vulnerability both refreshing and empowering.

8. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk has been referred to as the next Steve Jobs, though some argue he’s already surpassed Jobs. Musk is the CEO of two companies—Tesla Motors and SpaceX—that are revolutionizing entirely different industries. He’s stated that the goals of his companies revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity. (How’s that for a big hairy audacious goal.) Musk’s story is far from complete, but this biography provides a well-written account of his life to date and his bold plans for the future.

7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This book is the first of Maya Angelou’s five volume autobiography. It starts with her early childhood in rural Arkansas and ends with an unwanted pregnancy that dramatically changed her life. Angelou’s stories are heartbreaking, eye-opening, and inspiring. Her life experiences brought me a different perspective and changed how I see others and the world around me. Angelou teaches that when we know better, we do better. Reading this book helped me to know better. I hope, as she promises, that it will help me to do better.

6. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

A multi-level biography that tells the story of University of Washington oarsman Joe Rantz and the other boys who defeated the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Rantz was abandoned as a child and endured the hardships that came from living through the Great Depression. His story is inspirational, but even more inspirational is the intense unity created among his teammates as they pursued Olympic gold.

5. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson tells an incredible story of a creative, complex, innovative, and enigmatic man who sought to put a dent in the universe. I loved learning about Jobs’ so-called “Reality Distortion Field” that allowed him to bend reality and convince others they could do the impossible. In Isaacson’s words: “[Jobs’] legacy is transforming seven industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing, and retail stores. His legacy is creating what became the most valuable company on earth, one that stood at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and is the company most likely still to be doing that a generation from now.”

4. 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t compare, but this memoir tells a remarkable story. In short, Solomon Northup was a free-born African American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For 12 years he suffered the brutality and hardship that came with being a slave. Within a year of gaining freedom, he wrote and published a firsthand account of what he endured. Northup is an incredible example of determination, resilience, and hope.

3. John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams was a polarizing figure throughout the American Revolution and held vicious grudges with several of the Founding Fathers. Despite his many flaws, Adams provided consistent leadership and played a critical role during the founding of the United States. What makes his biography so rich are the letters he and his wife Abigail wrote to each other. They provide a window into the souls of two great people as they fight for independence and build a new government.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

Frankl’s account of life in a concentration camp is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Frankl persuasively argues that all of us are motivated not by pleasure or happiness but meaning. My favorite quote: “Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning.” I first read this book in 2009 after getting laid off during the financial crisis. Reading it provided perspective on my personal trials and encouraged me to find meaning outside of the workplace.

1. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Louis Zamperini lived an amazing life, and Hillenbrand has penned a wonderful biography. Zamperini was an Olympic athlete who joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier during World War II. After the engines on his bomber failed, Zamperini found himself stranded at sea for weeks. His story is hard to fathom. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out. Unbroken is the best book I’ve ever read.

Nothing trumps experience, but reading quality biographies can give you the insight, inspiration and perspective you need to overcome obstacles and take your career to the next level.

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