Great biographies can motivate, inspire, inform… and even entertain. Here are my five (okay, seven) of my favorites.
Most business owners read the occasional how-to business book, but sometimes a biography of someone successful can be just what you need for motivation and inspiration.
After all, those people achieved their dreams… so why can’t you?
The following books span a range of business topics, from building one of the first corporations to launching a new industry to creating the foundation of modern banking and lending:
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow
Bean counters of the world unite: Rockefeller started as an accountant and ended as the richest man in the world. Obsessively attentive to detail, ruthlessly competitive, calm in a crisis, willing to make tough decisions, great at spotting talent, famously generous.
Rockefeller shows how to build a massive company from an emerging industry.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles
Cornelius Vanderbilt arguably did more than any other individual to create modern capitalism and a corporate economy. He also foreshadowed our cult of celebrity; Twain said of Vanderbilt, “You seem to be the idol of… a swarm of small souls who sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings as if your millions gave them dignity.”
If you hate corporate life, blame Vanderbilt. But don’t argue with his success–at one time he was worth one out of every twenty dollars in circulation.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Granted he had an affair, was blackmailed, and was later killed in a duel, but along the way he also nearly singlehandedly created public (rather than private) finance in the United States, and along with Washington and a few others was largely responsible for ensuring America survived its formative years.
If you have an axe to grind where the U.S. financial and banking systems are concerned, hey, blame Hamilton. But first try to think up a better system; his vision has survived for over two hundred years.
Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
Tim Ferriss, eat your heart out–Carnegie was the riche
st man in the world while generally only working a few hours a day. Started out with little education, no money, no network, and no “tribe.” Focused on technological advances to ensure he was the low-cost producer and held on to profits so he could snap up struggling businesses during economic downturns.
Then he set out to give almost all his money away–and almost succeeded at that, too.
The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century by Steven Watts
Henry Ford proves you don’t have to be first to be successful. He didn’t invent the automobile or the assembly line, he just did both better than anyone else. He showed that customers willingly embrace fewer choices and greater reliability. And he created one of the first mass production manufacturing systems staffed by well-paid skilled workers.
Ford believed in the “redemptive power of material go
ods,” meaning he’d feel right at home among today’s marketers.
And a couple of bonus books:
Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda
While I in no way mean to insult soldiers by comparing business to war, there are at least tiny parallels in terms of mission, decision-making, perseverance, etc. As Korda says, “Lee, like Wellington, indeed like all great generals, had the ability to look on the misery of a battlefield, absorb its horrors–he never turned away from them–and then move on calmly to his next decision.”
Sounds a little like what entrepreneurs do every day.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy
You know he came, he saw, he conquered, and he spoke some of the most famous last words (“Et tu, Brute?”) a person never actually uttered.
But Caesar was also a master at building a personal brand. He played politics like a maestro, networked like a fiend, built a vast web of clients who owed their careers and fortunes to him–and backed it all up with world-class fighting and leadership skills.
By the end you’ll want to go out and conquer your own territory… and hopefully avoid the whole Ides of March thing.