How to learn from other people’s life experiences for the price of a book

Life is all about learning, and what better way to learn about life than to read the biographies of illustrious people?

I find biographies to be such a fascinating genre. I want to know what in their family background, education, growing process, life story make them the person they became.

The earliest one I could recall reading was that of Albert Einstein. In my psychology undergraduate course, I took up a module on the theory of relativity as one of my elective programs. For my essay, I had to write a lengthy dissertation on Albert Einstein the person.

Doing research for that essay was the single most enjoyable memory of my academic life. I can’t remember the exact title of the book I picked up from the library, but it was probably something like this one: “Einstein: His Life and Universe“.

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Behind the veneer of an absent-minded professor lies a very complex, and not entirely likable person. The one thing that irrevocably changed my impression of him was learning that he was something of a ladies man and even had a number of mistresses.

I wrote something like double the required minimum word limit, and got a very satisfying A for the essay.

I also enjoyed reading about the escapades of another world renowned physicist called Richard Feynman. He was involved in the development of the atomic bomb, but came across in the books like a lovable prankster who delighted in human company (including associating with unsavoury characters from the seedier side of society), and didn’t care two hoots about how other people thought of his behaviour.

Looking at his Wikipedia page, I was surprised to learn that he had already passed away back in 1988. He was filled with pure zest for life, and definitely lived his to the fullest. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy that could die, let alone be dead for the past 22 years.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)

The book was “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)“, and you could certainly apply both meanings of the word “curious” to him. What a guy.

Another biography that made a big impact on me was an autobiography by Hillary Clinton (Living History). I was an admirer of her husband during his presidency for his bold and liberal policies. Despite his indiscretions, I believed that the world became a better place because of his eight-year term in the White House.

On the other hand, I didn’t know quite what to make of Hillary Clinton. Her image was that of a tough career woman, but I didn’t realise just how tough she was until I read her book.

Living History

Her accomplishments as a student leader in university would put many politicians in Singapore to shame. The resilience she demonstrated in dealing with personal and professional crises commanded respect, and I have an inkling that if not for her gender, she would have made President instead of Bill Clinton.

At the moment, I’m reading yet another biography, this time of Warren Buffett. I’m only a quarter of the way through, but again, I’m seeing just how complex these highly accomplished people are.

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life is a thoroughly researched book by a former managing director at Morgan Stanley, and an absorbing read. No wonder it got shortlisted for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year prize. It presented a full picture of Warren Buffett, warts and all.

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Looking at the selection of memorable biographies I have read, I realised it included luminaries from the worlds of science, business, and politics, which happens to be my areas of interest as well.

The only people I don’t really want to read about are celebrities and entertainers. An obsession with fame and celebrity is not my cup of tea, and I believe it to be unhealthy. There probably is something in our genetic make up that pre-disposes us to celebrity worship, but that discussion is for another day.

So whose biographies have you read, in which did you enjoy the most?

About Hun Boon

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
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6 Responses to How to learn from other people’s life experiences for the price of a book

  1. TYN says:

    I’ve read Einstein and Feynman’s bios too! I like to read both the bios and the autobios. Great for perspective. 🙂

  2. Sin says:

    i read Lance Armstrong’s It’s not about the Bike. And after reading it decided he was a cold calculating bastard – i had absolutely nothing against the guy and not that much interest in cycling prior to that. I wondered if anyone else felt that way about him after they read his autobiography – surely it was meant to portray him in a good light, but curiously had the opposite effect.

    • Hun Boon says:

      Any particular incidents that made you feel that way about Lance Armstrong? Since it’s an autobiography, he must be scrupulously frank then!

  3. Min Sim says:

    Lang Lang’s autobiography “Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story” is a fascinating read. An amazing account of human resilience. It’s as much about Lang Lang, as it is about his father, who is a central and unforgettable character in the book. I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say it is a truly rivetting story.

    • Hun Boon says:

      I don’t enjoy Lang Lang’s performances because his exaggerated displays on stage distract from his piano-playing. Having said that, I’m sure his life must have been tough before he attained international success. I didn’t realise he’s only 28 this year, will wait for his second biography when he is older. 🙂

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