Seven Good Reasons to read biographies and autobiographies:
They provide a sandbox for role-play and rehearsal
Biographies allow us to test our mettle by trying to figure out how best to navigate and negotiate situations in a risk free environment. Because history tends to repeat itself and human behavior follows relatively predictable patterns, we can learn from other’s circumstances and mistakes. Complex situations can be unpacked into component parts for future actionable reference.
They allow us to invert the harsh lessons of experience
The Cy Young winning baseball pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates Vernon Sanders Law said, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” Pitchers must have a lot of time in the dugout between starts to think profound thoughts.
Reading biographies let’s you reverse the chronology and absorb the lesson first.
They help us practice and develop empathy and emotional intelligence
Emotional Intelligence is the capability of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions.
We use emotional information to guide our thinking and behavior. We need to be able to manage and adjust our emotions to adapt in different settings. In short we need to be appropriately social to get on in the world and achieve our goals.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is our ability to project into the situations of others and really experience their trials and tribulations as our own.
It is easy to read a biography and gloss over the trials and tribulations of the subject and those in their circle. We read of how they were ostracized and criticized and ignored or ridiculed; had diseases and illness; poverty and financial hardship, or were surrounded by war and death. We read these things and put them into the category of the stuff they had to overcome. Because we know the end of the story: that they triumphed either in life, or after with fame and glory, we diminish the immediate impact of these things that they must have felt.
Taking a moment to feel that impact allows us to develop our capability for empathy and understanding of others in our lives.
They help us see further
In February 1675 Sir Isaac Newton wrote to his good friend and colleague, the great polymath Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Reading biographies captures that experience. They allow you to see further by vicariously experiencing what others have gone through and achieved. The practice is an efficient way to gain life lessons.
This idea of standing on the shoulders of giants didn’t originate with Newton. The original attribution of this is from Bernard of Chartres in the early 12th Century as recorded by John of Salisbury:
“Bernard of Chartres used to say that we [the Moderns] are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants [the Ancients], and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.”
Obviously Newton was an avid reader.
We are reminded of the cyclical nature of events
The philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is not much new under the sun and we risk repeating mistakes others have made before us if we are not aware of them. If we make ourselves aware, we can hopefully avoid them.
A cautionary tale can help us recognize and avoid potentially bad situations. And biographies allow us to rehearse navigating these challenging situations in a riskless way from the safety and comfort of our armchair while sipping herbal tea.
This kind of foresight may help us but I want to temper this point with the fact that sometimes events are outside of our control and may proceed even if we are aware of the probable outcome. It’s like watching an accident unfold in slow motion. “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” When events take this type of turn, it’s probably better to read philosophy and swap the tea for scotch.
They promote and encourage self-discovery
Biographies are chock full of teachable moments; some positive, inspirational and aspirational, and some that are cautionary. Ideas and approaches to life will reveal themselves through biographical narratives. Experiential learning is more impactful and satisfying, and thus more memorable, than reading a list of normative steps in a self-help or textbook.
They help us look at the world from novel angles
We need diversity of ideas and experience in order to break out of our creative ruts. Transformative ideas and revolutionary innovations come from lateral thinking; transposing a concept from one field to another or combining ideas in new and non-obvious ways. Biography is a resource for developing this super power.
They provide us with world-class mentors
When you read a biography or autobiography you get a glimpse into the subject’s mind and gain the advantage of “knowing” them. They become mentors as we ponder about what advice they offer related to the situations we face.
Related: Curated list of Best Biz Bios