Why Introverts Should Read Biographies
Being highly introverted, there is one piece of self-improvement advice that I’ve always struggled to follow. In summary — if you want to establish a particular habit or build expertise in a particular area, it is best to surround yourself with people who already practice that habit or who are already experts in that discipline. As James Clear says in Atomic Habits*:
“One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day.”
“Many people, particularly the introverts among us, recoil at the idea of reaching out to [experts] for advice.”
Or, putting it another way: Do I want to build better habits, increase my knowledge, and master new skills? Absolutely! Do I want to seek out and interact with others who can help me with those things? Absolutely not!
It takes a lot of time and effort for us introverts to seek out and participate in new communities, or to reach out to specific individuals for guidance. But while we’re working on building ourselves up to enact this crucial self-improvement tactic, there is a decent stop-gap that we can pursue in the meantime:
Finding biographies I’ve really clicked with has impacted me in similar ways to interacting with relevant communities and one-on-one learning sessions with experts. Not only has reading about the overarching life-themes of the highly-successful taught me incredibly important lessons, but the detailed look into their traits, practices, and habits have actually driven me towards success by causing me to — at least temporarily, and often unconsciously — take on some of their positive aspects as my own.
For instance, I’ve always somewhat romanticized the lone computer genius, the archetypical programmer-in-a-garage creating impressive, world-changing technology by leaning only on their technical ability rather than interpersonal skills — i.e., “the work speaks for itself”. In a question of which Steve I admire more — Wozniak or Jobs — the answer has always been the Woz. But the one thing that became very clear to me as I read Steve Jobs’s biography* is how game-changing ideas don’t just come about from a “man as an island” working without the help of others. From the Macintosh, to iTunes, to Pixar, to the iPhone, the theme I saw over and over again in Isaacson’s picture of Jobs is how many other people he connected with and relied on in order to create disruptive technology.
Although I detest the way the man treated others, reading about the relationships underlying his personal success made me completely rethink my approach to my professional life as well as my hobbies. His drive and his success in business relationships (again, success in terms of outcomes, NOT in terms of approach) directly influenced me to change some of my own workplace habits, quickly allowing me to pursue and achieve both a promotion and a salary increase — and this was before I even finished the book! Jobs’s vision also helped me redefine my own — and whereas before I was more or less bouncing from workplace to workplace, I’ve since been able to create and follow a career path for myself that has led me to even greater success.
Another biography that has helped me with self-improvement is that of Leonardo da Vinci*. da Vinci exemplifies that type of lone genius that I once romanticized — and also reinforces the lessons that I learned from reading about Jobs. Over and over again, da Vinci discovered new knowledge that ended up recorded in his extensive notebooks and isolated from the world — sometimes taking decades and even centuries for independent researchers to rediscover something he had already learned (his work on blood flow in the chambers of the heart immediately comes to mind). da Vinci could have changed the world more than his art already had, had he only possessed the same networking abilities (and, possibly, the same desires and access to modern communication technology) as Jobs.
But what I really took away from da Vinci’s biography was the way that he pursued knowledge. He was able to gain incredible insights into complex disciplines by first building a strong, foundational understanding of the topic at hand. By taking things apart into their component pieces and working to fully realize their guiding principles, he was able to extrapolate those principles in order to master their end complexities. As a data analyst, this has helped me immensely, inspiring me to really get at the root of both tech problems and business needs, helping me to devise better solutions in less time, and furthering not only my own pursuit of knowledge, but also aiding me in explaining important concepts to less tech-minded audiences by focusing on easy-to-understand fundamentals rather than getting lost in complicated specifics.
I’ve had other insights and have experienced other behavioral changes after reading the biographical accounts of people like Alexander Hamilton*, Mike Tyson*, Atul Gawande*, and Ryan Holiday*. But the most important thing to know about these changes — as far as they pertain to personal improvement — is that they didn’t come from “aha” moments, or epiphanies based on telling anecdotes from these highly successful people’s lives. No, the changes came gradually, in bits and pieces and other tiny moments over the weeks spent reading about their personalities, habits, traits, and approaches. They came, to be honest, in the same way that Scott Young, James Clear, and other self-improvement writers often describe — unconsciously, and influenced merely by proximity. Put more simply — they rubbed off on me. And although it’s not a replacement for interacting with experts and engaging with communities, reading biographies can serve as a useful stepping stone for us hesitant introverts, allowing us to benefit from the influence of others while we work to improve our ability to seek it out in the world.
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