(Auto)biographies: A Window Into Greatness

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton

I’ve just finished reading “Play Nice But Win” by Michael Dell, a thrilling tale of boldness, resilience and reinvention. I found myself reflecting on why I love reading about other people’s lives. 

A biography is the closest we get to peering into the lives of the people who shape our world. They give us a glimpse into their early memories, formative experiences, and decision-making processes. If history is a record of the activities of mankind, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and diaries are perhaps the best explanation we have of the historical record.

Walter Isaacson once said, “When you write biographies, whether it’s about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.” Society often reinforces the “Great Man Theory of Leadership”; that leaders are born, not made. I’ve found that biographies help to humanize the people we most admire by showing us that even the greatest people face fears, insecurities, and self-doubt.

Biographies demonstrate that greatness is not about being born different, but about being shaped by one’s experiences and environment. Most importantly, by studying their lives, we can identify the specific behaviors and characteristics that led to their success.

The best biographies can be as exciting as a fictional thriller. In his autobiography, Shoe Dog, Phil Knight kept me at the edge of my seat as he recounted his battles with Onitsuka and Adidas. Matthew McConaughey had me in hysterics in Greenlights. And I challenge anyone to read Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, without shedding a tear.

Reading about the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman, and Steve Jobs can give us a glimpse into their minds and a sense of what advice they might have given. In this way, biographies can give us access to the greatest mentors who ever lived.

It goes without saying that not every biography is worth reading. The worst offenders are little more than a self-aggrandizing narrative highlighting the author’s ego or insecurities. 

Nevertheless, biographies offer a window into greatness. By studying them, we can learn some of life’s most valuable lessons and find inspiration from those who have left their mark on history. 

Here are my favorite biographies in no particular order (note that some of these recommendations aren’t marketed as biographies but are included if they contain a significant biographical component):

No Spam. No Fluff. No Noise.