On Biographies

Some among us happen to stumble upon an age old question when we look for new books to consume: what can be learned from biographies? We ask because we have either never read a biography before, or because we are ardent readers of extremely academic non-fiction.  But in either case, I can assure, much can be learned from biographies. 

We are able to learn about the reality of famous figures, for starters. Too frequently we are told overly embellished stories about geniuses and leaders. Stories about feats beyond human capacity; that some work of science or act of leadership is beyond what an ordinary human can do. When we read biographies, we see how human a feat actually is, especially when biographies pull no punches. 

We can likewise learn about the impacts of personality on human development. Often we are shown the virtuous sides of great figures, but when biographies show the entire picture, we see a far more accurate picture of the person. We see how the person acted not only in their professional lives, but also in their personal lives. We gain an understanding of how their personality not only contributed to their professional life, but also their personal life. We see how personality can sculpt someone’s choices and behaviours. 

Without biographies we would be left with overly embellished, overly idealized narrations of abstractions, not people. We hold in such high regard those who achieve something meaningful that they become unrecognizable when we expect them to look anything like the wild fantasies we hold about them. 

Merits and Flaws of Great Figures

After reading a biography, something becomes apparent rather quickly. What we are told about a person seldom matches the actual person. A sort of fantasy or delusion is destroyed and we become shocked. 

The narratives spewed about scientific geniuses in Hollywood movies or scientific textbooks fails to capture any of the flaws within these figures. 

We are told they developed wonderful ideas that revolutionized society, that built modern civilization, or that shaped an entire area of research for the better. We are told they were masters of disciplines at the young ages of 4, 5, or 8. That they excelled above all their classmates and were essentially non-humans living amongst mere mortals. 

But in reality, many great scientific geniuses required tons of help from their colleagues, were often awkward and not very sociable, and failed to understand much outside their own extremely narrow interests. Their skills, I agree, are impressive, yet those exact skills have trade-offs that make them worse off in other areas. 

A genius of biology knows very little about salesmanship, and a genius of mathematics knows very little about human psychology. There comes many undesirable trade-offs when someone specializes in so narrow a fashion, but these are seldom emphasized. 

Furthermore, men and women of great accomplishment almost universally suffer in their interpersonal lives; Einstein was a poor father, Leonardo Da Vinci had many romantic problems, Kant had forgone marriage entirely for the pursuit of truth, and Ayn Rand had a pattern of unstable relationships. Great intellect often comes with a diminished intuition for interpersonal affairs. Einstein himself said the empirical world is a much easier thing to study than the internal world of human relationships. 

And what holds true for geniuses likewise holds true for great leaders. Too often great leaders are portrayed as morally superior, creatures of few imperfections in matters of morality. Greater leaders are portrayed as never faulting to temptation, as always practicing what they preach, and as someone who never makes errors in moral judgements. 

The leader who brings an oppressed people out from hardship is viewed as righteous and morally justified, yet some such leaders rely on acts of terror and indiscrete violence to do precisely that. The leaders who encourage us to fight for what is right in public often do what is wrong when in private; they do not practice what they preach. And a leader who is portrayed as a virtuous person in public seldom resembles such an image in their private lives. 

Biographies show us the downfalls of our great leaders, not just their virtuous qualities. But biographies can show us more about influential figures than just a realistic image of them, they can also show us how similar these figures are to us; they can teach us about human psychology, and how similar the psychology of great figures is to us ordinary people.

Personality and Biographies

Einstein was a great theoretical physicist, but a lazy dog of a mathematician as one of his math professors said. But more importantly, he was a great physicist, and a wretched family man.

Einstein, whenever faced with ordinary problems in the realms of relationships, career, or personal finance, relied on science to escape. As much as us all, Einstein sought out escapes from his problems, except rather than use alcohol or parties, Einstein relied on books and science. Which can be a healthier approach overall, though he did it in excess. 

When Einstein’s wife, Mariac, was experiencing depression and raising children by her lonesome, she said in a letter to her friend that Einstein loved and preferred science more than her and the family. Which was not wrong, as Einstein confessed to others that marriage was a trap, a cage of sorts, and that he wished to never be trapped in such a cage again; which was a justification he gave to his cousin in order to avoid marrying her. 

So for all of Einstein’s intellect, he made a poor family man. He was someone you wanted in your university department, but not someone you wanted in your life. 

Such an image of Einstein makes him more like an ordinary man than Hollywood movies or fantastic stories do. And as a result, we can relate Einstein’s life to our own. We can see the choices he made to become so great a physicist, and make note of the trade-offs. We can see the impact of personality on his life outcome, and perhaps compare that to our own. If we are great at soccer, is it because we neglect our personal affairs? If we are great at math, is it because we want to escape something else? This realistic account of Einstein, an account that makes him more ordinary, provides us with a solid basis for comparison to our own lives.

And it is not just Einstein who we can say this of. Leonardo Da Vinci also had his problems that made him more ordinary than he is portrayed to be. 

Leonardo, despite being portrayed as a work-a-holic who revolutionized an era was in fact somewhat lazy. There were months at a time where he did not paint at all; he was fond of socializing and dressing up rather than working; and there are far more incomplete diagrams than complete diagrams, for inventions. Not only that, but as some have pointed out, drawing diagrams all day is far easier than actually building machines, and Leonardo built very few of the machines in his diagrams. 

In addition to that, Leonardo loved to learn, but his intellect was not beyond human. In his notebooks can be found to-do lists, and one such to-do list was about him going to a maths professor to learn logarithms, something the average high school student now learns. He was inquisitive and curious, but many of his ideas are nothing overly complex or sophisticated; they are not something beyond the comprehension of an ordinary person. 

The point being, when we read about the actual facts around the lives of these great figures, we are able to see how similar they are to us; whereas the great stories told about them make them seem anything but similar to us. In reality, great figures are ordinary people who, with a little luck, effort, and help from others managed to achieve something worthwhile. 


So there is no need to look up at great figures, for we should instead place them on equal footing. They are more similar to us in both professional and personal affairs than we realize. They are not beyond ordinary people, they are ordinary people who have been fetishized by the media. Yet we only understand this once we read about their lives, for it is once we see the downfalls, not just the merits, of these figures that then become human.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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