To be the best you have to learn from the best. These real-life stories from industry titans are absolutely fascinating and could help make you a better businessperson.
These memoirs are essential reading for anyone interested in a good superhero origin story and cover a variety of industries. Whether their expertise is in sports, entertainment, news, or tech, the lessons they’ve learned can easily be transferred into your field.
“The Mamba Mentality: How I Play” by Kobe Bryant
The parallels between competitive sport and the business world are easily drawn, especially when they’re drawn by one of basketball’s biggest names. Bryant’s method is a reminder that being results-driven isn’t effective unless you give every part of the process the same level of importance. His love for the game drips from every sentence, and his insights into his leadership style are more motivational than any self-help book.
Further reading: “Open” by Andre Agassi
“Open” is more of a traditional memoir in that’s focused on telling Agassi’s story, rather than breaking down his strategy. Still, it’s a fantastic look at what it takes to get to the top, and what happens when you end up hating it there.
“To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History” by Lawrence Levy
Today Pixar is an absolute powerhouse, but it wasn’t always. This is the story of how Levy and Jobs embarked on turning what looked like a dead-end asset into a massively successful publicly traded company.
It turns out the stories of the business side of Pixar are just as riveting as the ones they put on screen. Reading about Levy’s take on the complicated character of Steve Jobs is interesting, but in this case it takes a backseat to the company’s development and the lessons they learned along the way.
Further reading: “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
Rewind to Pixar’s very beginnings with its co-founder. It’s basically on every creative’s reading list, and is chock-full of great advice on managing a creative team and maintaining a company culture that nurtures both creativity and productivity.
“A Big Life (in Advertising)” by Mary Wells Lawrence
From the voice of the first female ad agency president and first female CEO for a company in the New York Stock Exchange comes an uplifting story about storytelling, specifically the evolution of advertising.
Lawrence was a pioneer in her field and her memoir reads like a more realistic version of “Mad Men” (because it’s, you know,
Further reading: “Personal History” by Katharine Graham
Graham is another pioneer and role model for today’s female executives. She was portrayed by Meryl Streep on the big screen (“The Post” in 2017), but it’s much better to hear it from the woman herself.
“Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight
Nike’s ascension from startup to an apparel giant is one of the greatest come-up stories in recent history, and Knight’s account is a surprisingly personal peek behind the curtain to the brand’s early days. “Failing fast” has quickly become part of the startup lexicon, but it’s rare to hear a CEO actually detail the many mistakes made along the way, and the times they had to ask for help. Knight’s candid writing even garnered a glowing endorsement from Bill Gates and has already been optioned by Netflix.
Further reading: Losing My Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson
Branson’s another big character with a unique attitude towards business. This memoir leans more into entertainment than inspiration, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse at Branson’s wild ride as one of the business worlds more adventurous mavericks.
“On Writing” by Stephen King
This book is about so much more than writing. King has an uncanny ability to pull inspiration from everyday, seemingly mundane things, and spin them into gold. Tracing the origins of these stories that are so universally loved is fascinating. Of course, you’ll also learn plenty of techniques to improve your writing and creative process. King makes pumping out stellar work at high frequency feel less daunting, and the story of how his work helped him recover from a devastating car accident is gripping.
Further reading: “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami
Somewhere between the writer’s memoir and the athlete’s memoir, Murakami chronicles training for a marathon and simultaneously building a career in writing. Themes include setting your own standards and knowing your limitations, and like all Murakami’s work, it’s beautifully expressed.
“When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man” by Jerry Weintraub and Rich Cohen
Weintraub definitely has the gift of gab. The people he’s worked with throughout his career read like a ‘greatest hits’ list of celebs, but he’s not bragging about his contacts (well, not entirely), he’s demonstrating how the most important thing for anyone looking to get ahead is the relationships they develop with other people. Some of his methods may be out of date now — like knocking on the doors of celebrities who went to his school to get them to sign his yearbook — but there are a lot of gems in here to remember the next time you go to a networking event.
Further reading: “D.V.” by Diana Vreeland
“D.V.” follows a similar vein of showing the hustle that takes place behind all the glam. The best part is that Vreeland had retired from the fashion world when she wrote it, so she doesn’t pull any punches (sometimes literally) for fear of burning bridges.
“My Journey into AI: The Story Behind the Man Who Helped Launch 5 A.I. Companies Worth $25 Billion” by Kai-Fu Lee
Having held major positions at Google China, Microsoft, Apple, and SGI, Lee has had a career most could only dream of, and that was all before he developed his own massive investment firm.
While most memoirs are about looking back into the past, reading about Lee’s trajectory feels like looking toward the future, specifically a tech-centric world. It’s also refreshing to read about China’s role as a hub for smart technology from the mouth of someone who actually worked in it, not just external analysis.
Further reading: “Idea Man” by Paul Allen
For a more detailed case study on how these mega-companies are born, check out the Microsoft co-founder’s book, specifically the occasionally tense relationship between Allen and Bill Gates which often gets overshadowed by their counterparts at Apple.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” by Jordan Belfort
Alongside all these success stories, sometimes you need a cautionary tale to bring you back down to earth. Belfort exemplified a lot of the traits praised in business, but also a lot of condemnable ones. It’s the story of the rapid success and rapid downfall of a man gaming the system for his own gain. He now makes his money not hocking penny stocks, but giving motivational speeches and selling his story to Hollywood. He’s managed to spin his wrongdoings into a new career, but has Belfort really learned his lesson? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Further reading: “Bloomberg by Bloomberg” by Michael Bloomberg
Bloomberg’s story isn’t quite as dramatic (or illegal) as Belfort’s, but it’s just as much about his empire’s growth as it is a portrait of the man himself. Bloomberg’s got no shortage of ego, but that kind of confidence can be an advantage, as this book proves.