Geoff Thompson 6 min read

Why Biographies Are The Ultimate Self-Help Books (and 10 must reads)

Self Improvement best books biography

Biorgraphies are the best books
Biorgraphies are the best books

To rise above the crowd, what we need is information.

But not JUST information…

I know plenty of people who have information by the bucket load but don’t employ it. I also know people who do use their information, but badly.

Isaac Asimov said, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” I think “science” and “Google” are interchangeable in this important point.

Information is a key to the world, but wisdom tells us which door to open. And the best way to increase your wisdom is to read books. Long, engrossing, challenging books. In particular, biographies.

When I spend thousands of dollars on books, I consider it a self-investment. After all, the person most likely to get me where I want to be is me. In books, I have the opportunity to access the knowledge of a thousand lifetimes. People say that reading is not the same as real-world experience. I agree, it’s not the same. But it’s just as important. There are some lessons better learned from other people’s mistakes.

Readers Are Leaders

I always tell my little lad (when he is struggling to get into a book) that readers are leaders; small libraries make great men. I have yet to meet a hugely successful person that wasn’t a voracious reader. I even took a speed-reading course so that I could get through more material.

Read this: The No Bullshit Guide to Speedreading

Can you imagine that, all that knowledge, all the secrets, all that information for the price of a few beers and a curry? But I have spent up to $80 on a single book if it is the one that I am looking for. People often say that the only way out of the rat race is through football or sport or pure luck. That’s just not true. The best way out is through the library entrance.

Just imagine any great name or think of the person that you most admire. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be able to find their whole life, lock, stock and (two smoking) barrels, highs, lows, successes, failures, likes and dislikes, the secrets to their success and all between the pages of a book. They give you their whole life for maybe $20. The sum of their life, every lesson that they have ever learned, every gem that they found all for a few quid. Now if that is not offering it all on a plate, I don’t know what is.

Read this: 174 Pearls of Wisdom From 174 Books

I find it incredible that you can go into any bookshop (or even on the web) and buy the life of the greatest men and women in history. You can find out why and how single individuals changed the course of history.

It’s all there, waiting to point you in the right direction. Let me give you a few examples from my own reading history.

The Power of Biographies (with Recommendations)

William Wallace: One man witnessed the slaughter of a whole village of people and decided that he was going to do something about it. He told his wife. She said, “But you’re only one man.” That one man changed the course of history with his tenacity and courage.

Mother Teresa: Have you read about this great and saintly woman, about how she cared for thousands and touched the hearts of millions? She was just a village girl who touched the whole planet. What about the courage of Churchill, the tenacity of Margaret Thatcher, the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, the power and love of Sai Babba, the focus and dreams of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte? All these extraordinary men and women saying, “Let me tell you what I’ve learned from my life.” What an incredible opportunity.

I am sitting here at this moment with a book of drawings by Saul Steinberg staring up at me. Steinberg isn’t dead; he is alive and kicking in my office. He sat here, alive in his work, saying, “What can I do for you Geoff, what can I teach you about my life through my work? Ask me, I’m here.”

saul steinberg no

Did you know that Escher lives with me? You’re damn right he does, and he only cost me about twenty bucks. It was an absolute steal I have to tell you. A steal. He is here with me now — all his drawings and all his words. When I am feeling a little insecure about my work he is there to help me. “Listen, Geoff,” he tells me, “we all feel insecure at times. I went on to become a world-renowned artist, but there wasn’t a day when I didn’t doubt my work; there wasn’t a day when I didn’t think, ‘is this any good?’”

Read this: Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite

Escher has taught me that insecurity driven into your work is what makes it great, the very fact that the great Escher can doubt his work, can feel insecure, can feel like giving it all up, makes me feel that I am not on my own and that it is OK to have bad days and that an ordinary person can reach the stars. I remember first looking at his work and being filled with awe. I’d never have believed that he would have any insecurities at all about this great art, but in his book he said:

I’ve absolutely no reason to moan about the ‘success’ of my work, nor about the lack of ideas for there are plenty of them. And yet I’m plagued by an immense feeling of inferiority, a desperate sense of general failure; where do these crazy feelings come from?
gandhi-autobiography-book (1)

I have Gandhi’s life story in front of me. The book costs about $10; the price is so little that I am almost embarrassed to say it. I spend more than that on car parking, in a single week. This one book has given me more direction and more hope than any amount of money.

Mr. Gandhi has taken me behind the scenes of his life and shown me the rights and the wrongs, he has given me the secret to inner power, he has taught me that faith in yourself and your God means immortality, it also means that nothing is beyond you once you decide to ride the bull. He has shown me that I only have to master one single thing in my life, and I can have anything I want. And that one single thing is “me.”

Gandhi learned how to lead himself, and he made loads of mistakes along the way, and by doing so he built up a personal following of over twenty million people. Can you imagine that? But the most important thing reading his book taught me is that I could, you could — we all could — do exactly the same thing.

Read this: Gandhi: An Autobiography

There are only so many things we can learn from one lifetime, only so many lessons we can learn with the finite years that we are allotted. That’s why books were invented, so that you can take great men and women and learn the lessons they learned from their lives. If you discipline yourself and get a lot of reading done, you can become the manifestation of a thousand great people.

You can learn all the reference points they offer and learn from their mistakes, you can take what it was that made them legendary and make it a part of you. These people have left their stories, their ‘instructions for life’ so that you can get onto the fast track — so that you don’t have to do the thousands of experiments they had to do to learn what they learned.

Once you have acquired this knowledge, you can use it to power your journey of discovery. If you wanted to get around London, the best thing to do would be to buy a street map. The biographies of great people are simply that, street maps to life. They have departed to another plain and left you the schematics. It’s great. It’s so wonderful. All you have to do is get out there and buy the books, read the stories, learn the lessons and then put them into action. Don’t forget to do that otherwise you’ll end up with a mind that gathers knowledge faster than it gathers wisdom.

If you make reading a habit, it’ll be the best habit you ever made.

10 Recommended Biographies in This Post

  1. William Wallace
  2. Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite
  3. Gandhi: An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments With Truth
  4. Steinberg at the New Yorker
  5. The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Bill Gates & Steve Jobs)
  6. Napoleon: A Life
  7. Mother Teresa (Revised Edition): An Authorized Biography
  8. Churchill: A Life
  9. Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands
  10. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of The Dalai Lama

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