What do Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Elon Musk, and scores of other highly successful people have in common? They all have biographies as core reading material. There’s a reason the most successful turn to biographies: guidance. It’s having access to a mentor for less than $9.81.
Wealth and great careers are built on experiments, mistakes, and failures. Minimizing failure means figuring out what works faster and creates wealth faster. What better way to study and avoid past mistakes than reading biographies. There’s a second reason, our brains are wired to remember stories over facts. Instead of reading yet another non-fiction, go to a biography. The story is both easier to remember and easier to understand the lesson.
Thomas Corley, author of Rich Habits even backs this up with research “I found one set of data points very interesting: 68% of the 177 self-made millionaires in my study read biographies of other successful people, while 91% of “poor” people — those with less than $35,000 in annual gross income and less than $5,000 in liquid assets — did not read biographies of other successful people.”
Shane Snow, the author of Smartcuts, calls biographies templates for success: “Between showing us what’s possible and how past breakthroughs have happened, biographies can help us see how greatness thinks—in a way that textbooks often don’t.” Biographies also tell the story, many of them inspiring stories proving the path to greatness is anything but easy. Churchhill’s childhood difficulties make what he accomplished even more inspiring. Lincoln’s struggle with mental illness gives you permission to be human. Rockefeller’s story shows how big business can be both good for an industry and society, but also ruthless against competitors.
In all of these stories, what’s most important remains lessons on how to live. Regardless of how bad it is right now, someone has struggled through worse and still managed to live through it all to tell the story.
Biographies to Model Life After
Nine working-class boys– sons of farmers, shipyard workers, and loggers–defeat the eastern elite to go to the Olympics and face off with the Germans and win. It’s a story focused on Joe Rantz who rows to survive without family or connections or privilege. Through Joe, the story shows just what grit really is. Joe’s connection with trees brings us back to growth. One of Joe’s first jobs involves logging. He also connects with George Pocock, who builds the shells out of Western Cedar. Pocock shows Joe trees survive. Trees overcome difficulty. Trees get hit with adversity and still grow. Some trees manage to grow through lightning strikes, hostile climates, poor soil, infestations, even droughts. The adversity shows up in the rings of the tree. And yet, the tree continues to grow.
“It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them. —George Yeoman Pocock”
The Fish that Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen
Through pure hustle, a poor Russian immigrant works his way from selling old bananas to one of the largest shareholders and CEO of United Fruit. From the railcars of New Orleans to the headquarters of United Fruit in Boston, Zemurray outworked, out planned, outmaneuvered his heavy competitors. Rejected by society from the start to the end. Even at the height of United Fruit, he’s constantly the outsider working to survive. The entire story shows how crafty, creative solutions can be to overcome obstacles and powerful competitors.
Zemurray fought a stock collapse, debt, low morale, proxy battles, land disputes, a monopoly size competitor, foreign governments, the US State Department, WWII, crop devastation, disease, ripening product, bankers–fought them all and managed to turn each adversity into an advantage.
In this candid and riveting memoir, for the first time ever, Nike founder and board chairman Phil Knight shares the inside story of the company’s early days as an intrepid start-up and its evolution into one of the world’s most iconic, game-changing, and profitable brands.
But Knight, the man behind the swoosh, has always been a mystery. Now, in a memoir that’s surprising, humble, unfiltered, funny, and beautifully crafted, he tells his story at last. It all begins with a classic crossroads moment. Twenty-four years old, backpacking through Asia and Europe and Africa, wrestling with life’s Great Questions, Knight decides the unconventional path is the only one for him. Rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, something new, dynamic, different. Knight details the many terrifying risks he encountered along the way, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors, the countless doubters and haters and hostile bankers—as well as his many thrilling triumphs and narrow escapes. Above all, he recalls the foundational relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crazed brothers.
Austerlitz, Borodino, Waterloo: his battles are among the greatest in history, but Napoleon Bonaparte was far more than a military genius and astute leader of men. Like George Washington and his own hero Julius Caesar, he was one of the greatest soldier-statesmen of all times.
Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.
Distilled from years of meticulous research and documentation, filled with material unavailable when the earliest books of the official biography’s eight volumes went to press, Churchill is a brilliant marriage of the hard facts of the public life and the intimate details of the private man. The result is a vital portrait of one of the most remarkable men of any age as well as a revealing depiction of a man of extraordinary courage and imagination.
Claude Shannon was a groundbreaking polymath, a brilliant tinkerer, and a digital pioneer. He constructed a fleet of customized unicycles and a flamethrowing trumpet, outfoxed Vegas casinos, and built juggling robots. He also wrote the seminal text of the digital revolution, which has been called “the Magna Carta of the Information Age.” His discoveries would lead contemporaries to compare him to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. His work anticipated by decades the world we’d be living in today—and gave mathematicians and engineers the tools to bring that world to pass.
It’s the story of a small-town Michigan boy whose career stretched from the era of room-sized computers powered by gears and string to the age of Apple. It’s the story of the origins of our digital world in the tunnels of MIT and the “idea factory” of Bell Labs, in the “scientists’ war” with Nazi Germany, and in the work of Shannon’s collaborators and rivals, thinkers like Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Vannevar Bush, and Norbert Wiener. And it’s the story of Shannon’s life as an often reclusive, always playful genius.
“What,” I said, “in your estimation, is the greatest good a man can do?” ‘The greatest good he can do is to cultivate himself, develop his powers, in order that he may be of greater use to humanity.” — Orison Swett Marden’s interview with Marshall Field a Chicago based entrepreneur.
This is a combination of first-person interviews with many successful entrepreneurs, of the late 19th century.
Born of modest origins in Scotland in 1835, Andrew Carnegie is best known as the founder of Carnegie Steel. His rags to riches story has never been told as dramatically and vividly as in Nasaw’s new biography. Carnegie, the son of an impoverished linen weaver, moved to Pittsburgh at the age of thirteen. The embodiment of the American dream, he pulled himself up from bobbin boy in a cotton factory to become the richest man in the world. He spent the rest of his life giving away the fortune he had accumulated and crusading for international peace. For all that he accomplished and came to represent to the American public—a wildly successful businessman and capitalist, a self-educated writer, peace activist, philanthropist, man of letters, lover of culture, and unabashed enthusiast for American democracy and capitalism—Carnegie has remained, to this day, an enigma.
In this groundbreaking biography, T.J. Stiles tells the dramatic story of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the combative man and American icon who, through his genius and force of will, did more than perhaps any other individual to create modern capitalism. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, The First Tycoon describes an improbable life, from Vanderbilt’s humble birth during the presidency of George Washington to his death as one of the richest men in American history. In between we see how the Commodore helped to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation. Epic in its scope and success, the life of Vanderbilt is also the story of the rise of America itself.
How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson’s biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.
Based on newly released personal letters of Einstein, this book explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk—a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn’t get a teaching job or a doctorate—became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom, and the universe. His success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals.
Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.
His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from having wide-ranging passions. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history’s most memorable smile. He explored the math of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper. Isaacson also describes how Leonardo’s lifelong enthusiasm for staging theatrical productions informed his paintings and inventions.
The real Henry Ford was a tangle of contradictions. He set off the consumer revolution by producing a car affordable to the masses, all the while lamenting the moral toll exacted by consumerism. He believed in giving his workers a living wage, though he was entirely opposed to union labor. He had a warm and loving relationship with his wife, but sired a son with another woman.
Uncovering the man behind the myth, situating his achievements and their attendant controversies firmly within the context of early twentieth-century America, Watts has given us a comprehensive, illuminating, and fascinating biography of one of America’s first mass-culture celebrities.
From Publishers Weekly: When Warren Buffett’s partner, fellow Nebraskan and Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman Charles T. Munger (now 76 years old) was a young boy, his hero was the independent Robinson Crusoe. As he grew older, he strove (and still strives) to emulate the creative thinker Benjamin Franklin, whom Munger admires most for his commitment to social causes and philanthropy. (Munger is one of the pioneering supporters of Planned Parenthood.) Lowe, who spent three intensive years learning about Munger’s life and work, had the full cooperation of his subject for this biography and access to his vast network of admiring and devoted business associates, his family and his lifelong friends. She does a superb job of re-creating Munger’s development from a respectable lawyer to a savvy investor, providing intricate details about the incisive thinking behind his business deals, which she weaves into a captivating narrative. The droll, brilliant, focused and intensely private Munger conducts his business the way he lives his life: he invests his time and his money in people of strong moral character and businesses that are intrinsically sound. He is not averse to risk, because he calculates it carefully, and, most crucially, when he makes a commitment, he does so for the long term.
“The adventurer is within us, and he contests for our favour with the social man we are obliged to be. These two sorts of life are incompatibles; one we hanker after, the other we are obliged to. There is no other conflict so deep and bitter as this, whatever the pious say, for it derives from the very constitutions of human life, which so painfully separate us from all other beings. We, like the eagles, were born to be free. Yet we are obliged, in order to live at all, to make a cage of laws for ourselves and to stand on the perch. We are born as wasteful and unremorseful as tigers; we are obliged to be thrifty, or starve, or freeze. We are born to wander, and cursed to stay and dig.” — William Bolitho
Recommended by Elon Musk as a key book that inspired him. This book is intended to elucidate history somewhat, more to illustrate it, to honor without hypocrisy the deeds of men and women whose destiny was larger, if not deeper than our own. Above all to shake loose the perception of the adventurer in us and of us in the adventurer. William Bolitho explores 12 famous lives: Alexander the Great, Casanova, Christopher Columbus, Mahomet, Lola Montez, Cagliostro (and Serpahina), Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon I, Lucius Sergius Cataline, Napoleon III, Isadora Duncan and Woodrow Wilson.
From secretary to Abraham Lincoln to secretary of state for Theodore Roosevelt, Hay was an essential American figure for more than half a century.
John Taliaferro’s brilliant biography captures the extraordinary life of Hay, one of the most amazing figures in American history, and restores him to his rightful place. Private secretary to Lincoln and secretary of state to Theodore Roosevelt, Hay was both witness and author of many of the most significant chapters in American history—from the birth of the Republican Party, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, to the prelude to World War I. As an ambassador and statesman, he guided many of the country’s major diplomatic initiatives at the turn of the twentieth century: the Open Door with China, the creation of the Panama Canal, and the establishment of America as a world leader.
Hay’s friends are a who’s who of the era: Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Henry Adams, Henry James, and virtually every president, sovereign, author, artist, power broker, and robber baron of the Gilded Age. His peers esteemed him as “a perfectly cut stone” and “the greatest prime minister this republic has ever known.”
At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, The River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth. The River of Doubt-it is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron. After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever. Along the way, Roosevelt and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide.
Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, America’s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard’s Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.
Regarded as the classic standard biography on Thomas Edison. It is the only biography written in the last 40 years to be recommended by the official voice of the caretakers of the Edison Laboratory National Monument in New Jersey which houses all of Edison’s original records, sketches, notes, correspondence and memoranda. Depicts Edison as a pivotal figure in America’s economic and industrial revolution success and at the same time as a human being, including his exploitative and, at times, crude qualities.
The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy
The modern American economy was the creation of four men: Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan. They were the giants of the Gilded Age, a moment of riotous growth that established America as the richest, most inventive, and most productive country on the planet.
Acclaimed author Charles R. Morris vividly brings the men and their times to life. The ruthlessly competitive Carnegie, the imperial Rockefeller, and the provocateur Gould were obsessed with progress, experiment, and speed. They were balanced by Morgan, the gentleman businessman, who fought, instead, for a global trust in American business. Through their antagonism and their verve, they built an industrial behemoth―and a country of middle-class consumers. The Tycoons tells the incredible story of how these four determined men wrenched the economy into the modern age, inventing a nation of full economic participation that could not have been imagined only a few decades earlier.
What were the talents that allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their visionary ideas into disruptive realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail?
The Innovators is a masterly saga of collaborative genius destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution—and an indispensable guide to how innovation really happens. Isaacson begins the adventure with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page.
This is the story of how their minds worked and what made them so inventive. It’s also a narrative of how their ability to collaborate and master the art of teamwork made them even more creative.
Acclaimed by The Wall Street Journal as “brilliantly researched and written,” the book tells the rich, panoramic story of four generations of Morgans and the powerful, secretive firms they spawned. It is the definitive account of the rise of the modern financial world. A gripping history of banking and the booms and busts that shaped the world on both sides of the Atlantic, The House of Morgan traces the trajectory of the J. P. Morgan empire from its obscure beginnings in Victorian London to the crash of 1987. Ron Chernow paints a fascinating portrait of the private saga of the Morgans and the rarefied world of the American and British elite in which they moved. Based on extensive interviews and access to the family and business archives, The House of Morgan is an investigative masterpiece, a compelling account of a remarkable institution and the men who ran it, and an essential book for understanding the money and power behind the major historical events of the last 150 years.
Here is the essential, endlessly engrossing biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—the Jekyll-and-Hyde of American capitalism. In the course of his nearly 98 years, Rockefeller was known as both a rapacious robber baron, whose Standard Oil Company rode roughshod over an industry, and a philanthropist who donated money lavishly to universities and medical centers. He was the terror of his competitors, the bogeyman of reformers, the delight of caricaturists—and an utter enigma.
Drawing on unprecedented access to Rockefeller’s private papers, Chernow reconstructs his subjects’ troubled origins (his father was a swindler and a bigamist) and his single-minded pursuit of wealth. But he also uncovers the profound religiosity that drove him “to give all I could”; his devotion to his father; and the wry sense of humor that made him the country’s most colorful codger. Titan is a magnificent biography—balanced, revelatory, elegantly written.
Here is THE book recounting the life and times of one of the most respected men in the world, Warren Buffett. The legendary Omaha investor has never written a memoir, but now he has allowed one writer, Alice Schroeder, unprecedented access to explore directly with him and with those closest to him his work, opinions, struggles, triumphs, follies, and wisdom. The result is the personally revealing and complete biography of the man known everywhere as “The Oracle of Omaha.”
Warren Buffett is an array of paradoxes. He set out to prove that nice guys can finish first. Over the years he treated his investors as partners, acted as their steward, and championed honesty as an investor, CEO, board member, essayist, and speaker. At the same time he became the world’s richest man, all from the modest Omaha headquarters of his company Berkshire Hathaway. None of this fits the term “simple.”
Celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation and the first president of the United States. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one volume biography of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his adventurous early years, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America’s first president. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow shatters forever the stereotype of George Washington as a stolid, unemotional figure and brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods.
John Boyd may be the most remarkable unsung hero in all of American military history. Some remember him as the greatest U.S. fighter pilot ever — the man who, in simulated air-to-air combat, defeated every challenger in less than forty seconds. Some recall him as the father of our country’s most legendary fighter aircraft — the F-15 and F-16. Still others think of Boyd as the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu. They know only half the story. Boyd, more than any other person, saved fighter aviation from the predations of the Strategic Air Command. His manual of fighter tactics changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights. He discovered a physical theory that forever altered the way fighter planes were designed. Later in life, he developed a theory of military strategy that has been adopted throughout the world and even applied to business models for maximizing efficiency.
The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city’s politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.
In revealing how Moses did it–how he developed his public authorities into a political machine that was virtually a fourth branch of government, one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors (from La Guardia to Lindsay) by mobilizing banks, contractors, labor unions, insurance firms, even the press and the Church, into an irresistible economic force–Robert Caro reveals how power works in all the cities of the United States. Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor. He personally conceived and completed public works costing 27 billion dollars–the greatest builder America (and probably the world) has ever known. Without ever having been elected to office, he dominated the men who were–even his most bitter enemy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not control him–until he finally encountered, in Nelson Rockefeller, the only man whose power (and ruthlessness in wielding it) equalled his own.
Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders like Steve Wozniak (Apple), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail) tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company.
Where did they get the ideas that made them rich? How did they convince investors to back them? What went wrong, and how did they recover?
Nearly all technical people have thought of one day starting or working for a startup. For them, this book is the closest you can come to being a fly on the wall at a successful startup, to learn how it’s done.
Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, thrived on outrageous adventures. Here he recounts in his inimitable voice his experience trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek; cracking the uncrackable safes guarding the most deeply held nuclear secrets; accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums; painting a naked female toreador. In short, here is Feynman’s life in all its eccentric―a combustible mixture of high intelligence, unlimited curiosity, and raging chutzpah.
“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
― Richard Feynman
How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love—such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: How do you live? This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, considered by many to be the first truly modern individual. He wrote free-roaming explorations of his thoughts and experience, unlike anything written before. More than four hundred years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come to him in search of companionship, wisdom, and entertainment —and in search of themselves. Just as they will to this spirited and singular biography.
Marcus Porcius Cato: aristocrat who walked barefoot and slept on the ground with his troops, political heavyweight who cultivated the image of a Stoic philosopher, a hardnosed defender of tradition who presented himself as a man out of the sacred Roman past―and the last man standing when Rome’s Republic fell to tyranny. His blood feud with Caesar began in the chamber of the Senate, played out on the battlefields of a world war, and ended when he took his own life rather than live under a dictator.
Cato’s life is a gripping tale that resonates deeply with our own turbulent times. He grappled with terrorists, a debt crisis, endemic political corruption, and a huge gulf between the elites and those they governed. In many ways, Cato was the ultimate man of principle―he even chose suicide rather than be used by Caesar as a political pawn. But Cato was also a political failure: his stubbornness sealed his and Rome’s defeat, and his lonely end casts a shadow on the recurring hope that a singular leader can transcend the dirty business of politics.
This is part of a Real World MBA curriculum. Other parts of the curriculum include Management, Decision Making, Startups, Execution, Career Success, Finance, Dealing with People, Communicating, Ethics, Strategy, and Marketing.