Smart People Read Biographies - Here's 19 To Add To Your Reading List

Once the motivational flame is lit, it doesn’t take much to keep it going.

One of the best ways to keep the internal fire raging, is to flood your brain with the stories, biographies and memoirs of great people who have achieved the impossible. Their stories inspire us to keep pushing. There’s a reason why almost all transformative leaders read biographies.

Here's 19 you should add to your reading list. 


Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story - Arnold Schwarzenegger

Young boys from the Austrian countryside are not supposed to move to the US, become bodybuilding champs, millionaire businessmen, movie stars and politicians -- and that’s exactly what Arnold did. Through sheer reps, sets and disciplined approach to everything he did, Arnold was a master of personal transformation -- one that continues each and every day. 

What he did is fascinating. How he did it, provides a master class for anyone who dreams big and wants to actualize those dreams.


When I stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead – Jerry Weintraub

Jerry Weintraub is the most famous person you've never heard of.

He's Hollywood's greatest promoter and biggest dealmaker and the man behind Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, John Denver, The Ocean’s 11 Franchise, The Karate Kid and many more.

No matter what life threw at him from club rooms of Brooklyn, to Mafia hangouts of NY’s Lower East side, to the hills of Hollywood he found a way to promote and sell tickets to his shows. His biography 'When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead' tells his rise from obscurity to entertainment millionaire super-mogul. It’s a master's class of case studies in finding mentors and creating business relationships.


Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike – Phil Knight

We forget that even the big guys like Nike, were at one point the little guys. Nike co-founder Phil Knight started the company by taking a leap of faith and traveling to a post WWII worn-torn Japan. Once there, he pitched an executive team at Onitsuka Tiger Athletic Shoes and secured an exclusive deal to sell their shoes in the US, despite not having a business to do so. This is the type of ballsy move that everyone talks about and very few have the courage to pull off. 

Once back on US soil, Knight started by selling pairs of Tiger athletic shoes out of the trunk of his car and out of his parents basement. He company grew slowly at first and then exponentially. After a few years of business with Tiger, his exclusive agreement collapsed and he needed something else to sell. In the aftermath Nike was born.

We all know what happened next...


Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl

When the markets are crashing, everyone you know is in debt, you're boss is being an asshole or you're stuck in traffic -- it's hard to be grateful for the wonderful quality of life that most of us experience. Man's Search For Meaning is a painful and beautiful reminder of how much pain and suffering each of us can withstand and still feel meaning in our daily existence. 

After losing his entire family and imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, Viktor Frankl had to find hope in his dehumanizing existence at the hands of his torturers. If you're interested in understanding human suffering, this book will teach you it's true meaning. 


Losing My Virginity - Richard Branson

Before a big interview with a CEO of a mid-sized company, my friend recommended this book. He said it would help me understand the mind of a founder and leader.

He was right.

Losing My Virginity provides a look into the mind of the man behind Virgin Airlines, Virgin Music, Virgin Mobile and Virgin.... everything. It’s the story of a young founder finding his way into the business world and the leadership philosophies he used to build Virgin into a mega brand.



Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption – Laura Hillenbrand

How would you handle your plane crashing over the Pacific, spending 41 days at sea in a life raft, fighting off sharks while being shot at by Japanese Zero machine guns -- only to be rescued and spend the next few years in Japanese POW (death) camps and losing 100 lbs?

This series of events would have broken most men, but not Louis Zamperini. 

Unbroken is the story of when Olympic athlete Zamperini enrolled in the US Army Air Corp, prepared like a man possessed for the unthinkable, faced death, won and came home to share his story.  


Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – Ashlee Vance

If Michael Jordan was the best modern basketball star, than Elon Musk is the Michael Jordan of modern high-tech entrepreneurship.

He’s been called the real Iron Man and this book will help you understand why.  

Musk is an animal -- the intensity he throws himself into his companies and projects is stunning and the sheer amount of punishment he can take is simply not human. At the very least this book will motivate you to keep pushing and trying to achieve the impossible. You'll want to work harder than your peers and try to match Musks effort. Don't. You won't last. 

Musk regularly works 100 hours a week as the leader in 3 multi-billion dollar organizations (TESLA, SPACE X, SOLAR CITY), regularly shunning social events, time with family, leisure time and basic nutritional needs -- to the point of nervous system meltdown.  

This book will force you rewrite your definition of a work/life balance. 


The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life - Alice Schroeder

If you're looking for investment advice this isn't the book for you. If you want to understand the personal transformation and the daily success habits of the worlds best investor, than you'll learn a lot. The Snowball is the story behind Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway and his 72+ billion dollar fortune. 

Buffett has been idolized and put on a pedestal, by hoards of fans and financial enthusiasts, some who think of him with god-like reverence. After reading this book, you'll realize that he's human. He's a lot like you. 


Open: An Autobiography – Andre Agassi

Our western culture loves the stories of overnight successes, child prodigies and those with "god-given" talent. Rarely do we see the 10,000+ hours of intense deep practice that led to their mastery.

Andre Agassi allows us to peer into the mind and psyche of a child prodigy who was forced to become a star too soon. His honest and vulnerable account of his tennis career tells the glamorous and not-so-glamorous elements of living at the center of the sports universe for nearly 2 decades. Rarely do we see an author so unapologetically show us all of their scars, demons and ugly side.

Agassi takes us along for the ride of his career and helps us understand what was really going on during his rise, fall and comeback.  

I had no idea that Agassi actually hates tennis. Did you?

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon -- Brad Stone

Before Amazon was crushing local retail stores, it was fledgling online bookstore.

In the early days of Amazon, E-commerce was small but growing rapidly. Bezos understood that the time to invest was right now, so he quit his lucrative executive position and did something crazy: he started an online bookstore. People told him he was nuts, but he invested his savings (his parents too) into his crazy big idea. 

This book isn't just motivation for entrepreneurs it's a tale for any aspiring thought leader, scientist or artist. The book teaches you how to challenge the status quo and that all of rules can be broken except for those governing the physical universe. 


Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan – Sean Parnell

As our modern industrialized world continues to expand to all reaches of the globe, we sometimes forget there are places in complete turmoil, where murder, rape and torture are common. 

Amidst the chaos in the book is a tale of leadership and brotherhood told by Outlaw Platoon leader Sean Parnell. He brings you right to the center of the anarchy and recounts tales of bravery so fierce, you feel like you're there. 

Reading this book, you'll realize the decisions you make bear little consequence compared to a platoon leader in the midst of war. 


Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 – Marcus Luttrell

When shit hits the fan during war, it usually hit hard. Lone Survivor is the story of when everything went wrong for 4 Navy Seals on a reconnaissance mission.

The story shows the massive importance of preparation and training. You can' predict when unimaginable happens, but you can prepare for it.

Even if you've seen the movie, read the book. 



The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help – Amanda Palmer

Everybody is afraid to ask for what we want. We're afraid we'll appear weak, incompetent or that someone will see we're an impostor. We think we're bothering someone or we'll be rejected. We're worried that people won't like us or think we're weak or stupid. 

Nothing can be further from the truth. 

Palmer breaks down myths about asking and shines a light on how we can let others help.

Check out the Audible version. It's fantastic and read by Palmer. 


Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success -- Phil Jackson

During a recent trip to South Dakota, I downloaded this audio version before the drive. Soon I found myself hoping the 6.5 hour drive would never end. 

If you followed the 90's NBA Bulls or the 2000's Lakers you know about Phil Jackson. He's the coach and strategist behind Jordan, Shaq and Kobe. What separates him from everyone else (besides 11 NBA championships) is the counter-intuitive style of coaching, philosophy and theories about basketball and life.

He teaches you his coaching philosophies, daily success habits, preparation techniques, and meditation practice that made him a winner in the NBA.  

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life – Steve Martin

As a kid my mom and I would watch an old SNL skits with Steve  Martin and SNL co-star Dan Akroid on an early color TV with the aluminum channel knobs and dog eared antenna. Their famous skit  "Wild And Crazy Guys" would make our home fill with my mom's laughter. 
Reading Steve Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up brought me back to those fun moments from childhood. The book is a portrayal of a young man trying to make it in comedy during the 60's and 70's. It provides a fascinating look at the life of a professional comedian . Martin let's us in and shows the contrast between onstage appearance and what happens after the curtains close.

Michael Jordan: The Life –Roland Lazenby

Michael Jordan was THE icon of the 80's and 90's. No other superstar comes close. 

Even today, he's still regarded as the "Basketball Jesus". When you read this story, you'll understand that it didn't happen by accident. Jordan was the beneficiary of a marketing genius and telecommunications powerhouse that covered his every move and put him in every household in the western world. 

If you're a basketball fan or just curious about what's happening in the mind of a global super icon, you'll enjoy it. 


Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

In his final years, Jobs new the end was coming and approached Isaacson to write his story (thinking he was in the same icon stratosphere as Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein -- Isaacson's previous books).

The book shows Jobs at his best as a dynamic creative, transformative, disruptor who could move mountains with his super hero charisma. It also show him at his worst as a self absorbed, egomaniac, asshole, who viciously attacked people and left a wake of destruction everywhere he went. 

The book has a sense of alchemy and brings together both the light and dark sides of the Steve Jobs character. It's an instant classic. Reading this book, you'll understand power of charisma and how Jobs used to create the Apple empire. 

In the end, you admire the man but you see what a tragic character he was. There have been many biographies written about Steve Jobs but Isaacson's is the best. If you're interested in the Apple/Jobs story, start here. 


High Price - Dr. Carl Hart

While many of the books on this list feature someone of a privileged background, I would still rather read and emulate the habits of a man who is born into adversity, struggles with drugs, teaches himself to be a world famous scientist and is working to redefine the taboo surrounding drugs. 

Hart grew up in a poor area of Miami and experienced first hand the cycle of poverty and the injustices of the criminal justice system. In the most unlikely of circumstances he broke free from the shackles of poverty and used a discipline developed on the basketball court to transform himself into a neuroscientist. 


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York

This is the definitive book on power.

If you are interested in learning how to acquire it, use it and manipulate it -- this book will teach you how.  It is nearly 1,200 pages and every single one will teach you something about power, influence, leadership, politics, law, public perception and how to get things done within an organization. 

Robert Moses was a man who started out as an idealist - unwilling to compromise, got power, fell in love with it and was transformed into a power broker.  Everyone can learn from his story -- mostly how to use power and what not to become.


One biography a month is about right for keeping the motivational fires stoked. You can choose something from this article or choose from this list that I regularly update.