11 Reasons to Read Biographies and Autobiographies

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
7 min read
Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Pandemic. Quarantine. Stay at home orders.

You may find yourself in current situations where circumstances have placed you with time on your hands. A profitable way to spend that surplus time is reading. Reading biography and autobiography can be thought of as an investment in self-knowledge. An investment in knowledge pays a high dividend.

People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.

Logan Pearsall Smith

Here are some reasons to keep in mind as you read a biography.

We can role-play our way to a better us.

Welearn by imitation. By borrowing the brain and trying on the exceptional character attributes of others, we can rehearse our own new and improved selves.

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero.

Charlie Munger

They provide a safe, risk-free playground for learning.

Life is the art of drawing without an eraser. You can’t unring a bell. It’s better t anticipate and avoid self inflicted mistakes.

Winging it can be a high stakes endeavor. Better to work through a simulation first.

You can pound your head against the wall trying to think of original ideas or you can cheat by reading them in books.

If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.

General James “Mad Dog” Mattis

Reading the lives of others can provide a playbook for how to deal with all kinds of situations. We can see how their responses panned out.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. We can be pretty sure that we will encounter similar situations. Having thought about them ahead of time can give us an advantage of not being ambushed when the shit hits the fan.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

― Otto von Bismarck

We can develop a repertoire of actions and responses.

As Norman Douglas said,

“There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.”

All other things are best anticipated and prepared for.

Biographies allow us to test our mettle by figuring out how best to navigate and negotiate situations in a risk-free environment. Because human behavior follows relatively predictable patterns, we can learn from other’s circumstances and mistakes. We can unpack complex situations into components for future actionable reference.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

They allow us to invert the harsh lessons of experience.

Mental models improve how we think by helping us to simplify complexity and better understand life.

Inversion is one of the most powerful mental models. Invert means to turn upside down. As a thinking tool, inversion helps to identify and eliminate obstacles by tackling them from the opposite end of the natural starting point.

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.” I have found that thought a profound expression of the human experience. Yogi Berra isn’t the only sage of baseball.

Have you ever come up with the best response after an event has passed? I bet you have. We all have. I often think of the perfect comeback line or thing I could have done after the moment has passed, and I looked less than brilliant. (more like a complete dumb-ass)

It’s at moments like that I wish I had a time machine and could go back and deliver the coup de grace. Immersing ourselves in other people’s lives is the next best thing to the time machine. We can note how we would best respond to a situation and use it when the situation arises.

Reading biographies allows you to reverse the chronology and absorb the lesson so you can anticipate a better response when you encounter a similar situation.

Mark Twain — ‘The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.’

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

They help us practice and develop empathy and Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence is the capability to recognize your own and other people’s emotions. Reading can help us not only identify but develop the vocabulary to describe and discuss emotional realties. This superpower can help us avoid beaucoup tragic missteps in our lives.

We use emotional information to guide our thinking and behavior. We need to be able to manage and adjust our emotions to adapt to different settings.

To get on in the world and achieve our goals, its crucial to be appropriately social.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is our ability to project into others’ situations and experience their trials and tribulations as our own.

In reading a biography, we can tend to gloss over the trials and tribulations of the subject. We learn how they were shunned and criticized and ignored or ridiculed; they had diseases and illness, poverty and financial hardship, or 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.

In retrospect, the good ending seems inevitable. That was not the lived experience.

Pausing to reflect and feel that impact allows us to develop our capacity for empathy and the understanding of others’ experiences.

Photo by Fabiola Peñalba on Unsplash

They help us see further.

In 1675 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. Biographies 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.”

Newton was an avid reader. Reading is what separates us from other animals. Reading is how we transmit and assimilate the collective Intelligence of humanity. We don’t rely on our innate knowledge and abilities. We can access the hard-won lessons of the wisest and most able.

Biography reminds us 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.

Knowledge in advance enables us to be prepared. Preparation prevents piss poor performance.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. This expression originated as a Latin proverb, Praemonitus, praemunitus, which was translated into English by the early 1500s.

But there are caveats. Foresight may help us, but I want to temper this point because 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 put down the biography and read stoic philosophy and swap the tea for scotch.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

They promote and encourage self-discovery.

Biographies are chock full of teachable moments, some positive, inspirational and aspirational, and many that are cautionary. Ideas and approaches to life reveal themselves through biographical narratives.

Experiential learning through stories is more impactful and satisfying, and more memorable than reading a list of normative steps in a textbook.

They help us look at the world from novel angles.

We need a diversity of ideas and experience to break out of our creative ruts. Transformative ideas and revolutionary innovations come from lateral thinking where we transpose a concept from one field to another or combine ideas in new and non-obvious ways. At the very least it will make you more interesting at a dinner party.

Biography is a resource for developing this superpower.

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.

Reading autobiography allows you to borrow someone else’s brain.

Parting thought

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

― Charles W. Eliot

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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