Mark Twain wrote, “The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can’t.”
Walt Disney said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”
And, more recently, Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) taught us, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
I share these quotations with you for two reasons. First, I believe and agree with each of them. Second, having read biographies about each of these men, I know they practiced what they preach in these lines.
I do realize that in this short article I likely won’t be able to convince you to become a book reader if you haven’t been in the past (though I am going to try). My goal is more modest. My goal is to get you to choose to read one biography, soon. I believe that experience will have a much more profound impact, and serve as a more compelling argument for you to be a more avid reader than any words I can place in front of you now.
Most people who read books tend to have a particular type of book they favor. Some of you read novels; some even focus on a certain genre, like science fiction or mysteries. Some read self help or personal growth. Some read extensively and largely exclusively in their area of career focus.
Reading a great biography (or autobiography) can be as exciting as your favorite thriller, provide more valuable and useful lessons than most self-help best sellers and offer more professional development wisdom than you can likely apply.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Here are five reasons choosing to read a biography will be a choice that will benefit you in many ways.
They allow you to stand on the shoulders of giants. In the 1670’s Sir Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” That is exactly what reading biographies can do for you – allow you to see further because of what these people have achieved. Admittedly not every biography is about a “giant” but most are (and you can certainly pick from that list). However, even if the person you’re reading about is despicable and not worthy of praise or admiration, there likely are still many lessons to be gleaned from their life experiences and behaviors – even if most are “things you don’t want to do.”
They remind you that history repeats itself. George Santayana wrote in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It was true long before then, it was true then and it hasn’t changed today. Reading about the real experiences of others gives context for the decisions and consequences that we all will face. History (recent or distant) will repeat itself because those who are making history were, and are, human beings. One of the best ways to take advantage of the experience of others is by reading biographies of historical figures, not academic tomes about history.
They promote self discovery. A good self help or professional development book will outline specific steps, tools, techniques and approaches to try. These can be valuable and successful shortcuts to help you make improvements and get results in most any area of your life. A biography, on the other hand, won’t be as direct. You will discover ideas and approaches on your own through the stories and experiences of others. This discovery learning process is often far more satisfying, and most always more lasting, than reading a list of steps.
They allow you to see the world in new ways. Rather than being completely focused on your professional discipline, looking at the way you and your colleagues always look at things, reading about someone from a different era, a different background or a totally different set of life experiences will give you new perspective. In truth, most great innovations come from taking an idea from one situation, discipline or industry and adapting it to another. Reading biographies is one great way to do this.
They give you mentors at a distance. If you have read about the life of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill or anyone else you select, you have had a glimpse into their mind and now have the advantage or “knowing” them. These people can become your mentors at a distance, if you allow yourself the chance to think about what advice they might give you, or what they might do in a the situation or choice you are facing.
Hopefully these five reasons have you at least thinking about picking up a biography, soon! Think of a person you have always found interesting or intriguing, even if you aren’t quite sure why. Then, find a book about them (or written by them) and get started!
You will be glad you did. You also will likely find more reasons to add to your personal list of why reading biographies is enjoyable and profitable for you.
Potential Pointer: Once you have decided to be a book reader, choosing to read biographies is a great way to expand your horizons, find new mentors and learn vicariously. Learning in this way can transform both your enjoyment of and benefits from reading.