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What I Learned from Great Biographies

Biography blog post
What can you learn from a book? The answer to that question might seem obvious, but you may be surprised. Of all the various genres of books I enjoy, my favorite is biography. Not only do biographies teach us about life through the wins and losses of their subjects, but they can also help us learn something about ourselves. Unlike the authors of most nonfiction books, good biographers don’t try to hit us over the head with key lessons and takeaways. They tell a story and then leave it up to us to decide what we walk away with.

Reading biography through your own life

When we read a biography, we approach it through the unique lens of our own lives. Our experiences, our beliefs, and our world view influence which passages catch our eye and which ones we skim over without a second thought. Therefore, biographies yield different lessons for different people.In some respects they are like a mirror we can hold up to our own lives and see where we fall short or even gain some confidence that maybe we do have our s*** together. “In reality, every reader is, while he is reading,” writes Alain de Botton, “the reader of his own self.” Because of this mirror effect, biographies can be a great catalyst for introspection. When I read about the good, the bad, and the ugly of someone else’s life, it forces me to examine my own values, habits, and behaviors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and asked myself, “Am I like this?”

Annotations from great biographies

When I go back and review my margin notes and highlights from Brian Jay Jones’ biographies: Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, George Lucas: A Life, and Jim Henson: The Biography, I find that I focused on what made Henson, Lucas, and Geisel pioneers in their fields. I paid attention to the work they put into their respective crafts. I also made notes on the price they paid for their creativity and success. In many instances they sacrificed time, personal relationships, and peace of mind for their “gifts.” So, I guess in sharing the insights I gained this month, I’m not only sharing some wisdom from the lives of Henson, Lucas, and Geisel, I’m also also telling you a little bit more about myself.

Own your learning

Jim Henson, Ted Geisel, and George Lucas didn’t wait for a prepackaged curriculum to be handed to them by an institution – they each sought out their education through real life experiences and learned through putting in the work. In reflecting on his life, Henson wrote, “I had never worked with puppets…and even when I began on television, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’m sure this was a good thing, because I learned as I tackled each problem.” Lucas continually attached himself to older and wiser mentors. He believed he needed to learn everything they could teach him and then move on and create his own body of work. Finally, Geisel didn’t go to school to become Dr. Seuss, he became Dr. Seuss by continually getting better at drawing and storytelling. It was through his time in advertising and military service that he developed his famous style.

Think inside the box

Almost my entire military career, I’ve heard various people complain about not being allowed to think outside the box. What I’ve learned and what all three of these men, who changed their respective fields, have shown is that there is plenty of creativity to be found within the limits of their boxes. Ted Geisel created stories like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham within the constraints of a 250-word list. Henson spent countless hours in the control room of his local television station in the 1960s, understanding camera tricks he could use to make his Muppets come alive given the technology at the time. And Lucas relied on ancient mythology to bring his Star Wars series a coherency that fans would come to love.
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Special thanks to Billy Oppenheimer for introducing to this series of biographies!

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