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Reading biographies for fun and profit

March 28, 2013

One of the projects I’ve taken on this year has been to read biographies of impressive people-so far I’ve covered Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman, and Otto von Bismarck. I’ll share some impressions in future posts before we delve into that it’s a reasonable question to ask, what good is reading biographies?

It is certainly true that famous people became famous for many factors. Some of them are innate, like being born with great mathematical genius or into a reasonably prosperous family. Others are entirely out of the person’s control – like being alive at the right place and time to make a historic contribution. If that’s all there is to it, then reading biographies nothing more than an enjoyable hobby – a combination of very local history and a little hero worship or wish fulfillment.

But what I hope to get out of the project is a few things. One is to get a better sense of what a successful life trajectory looks like. We often have the impression that successful people became successful through a path that is as obvious as hindsight. But in fact, successful people’s lives are as unpredictable to them as anyone else’s, with many reversals of fortune as well as triumphs. Reading a detailed account of someone’s life – instead of a streamlined version that one might find on Wikipedia – might help better understand just how much randomness is in everyone’s lives.

In addition, I hope to get a better understanding of the kinds of habits, and especially the kinds of mental habits or internal narratives, that these successful people held.  The psych literature has shown that many measures of personality traits, such as the OCEAN pentad, are fairly stable over a lifetime and indeed significantly genetically influenced. But habits of thought are a powerful way to determine how these predilections are translated into real-life actions. We may not be able to change the hand of cards were dealt, but we can play that hand more effectively.

In some future posts, I’ll go through these biographies one by one, pointing out some interesting facts and potential take away points.


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