Walt Disney. Steve Jobs. Benjamin Franklin. Leonardo da Vinci. Robert Moses. John D. Rockefeller. What do these individuals have in common? Were they all difficult to get along with? Not necessarily. Did they all have some grand vision for the future? Not always. Were they all men? Yes, but that’s just a distraction from the real matter at hand. Each of these individuals, legends of history, are dead.
I love biographies. I find motivation in their stories of trial and tribulation. Further, I try to actively learn from the protagonist, thus allowing me to sidestep obstacles in my own life. In general, biographies follow a similar format. They begin with a brief introduction of the grandparents. Then, the author brings in their offspring, the protagonist’s parents. After some time, we finally land at the hero of the story. The baby protagonist.
You learn of the child’s early years. What experiences formed their base foundation.
They then grow up. Their flaws get put on display. Challenges emerge. Sometimes the protagonist overcomes them. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, it doesn’t stop them. They come into their greatness. Lessons in resilience and motivation abound. As the book progresses though, things begin to turn. You suddenly realize the protagonist is heading towards a cliff. A cliff with no escape route. A cliff we all face. You dread the protagonist’s cliff. You’ve become fond of the character you’ve read so much about. And still further, you realize if they can’t evade the cliff, neither can you.
It’s terrifying. Yet sadly, it is inevitable. The book closes and the protagonist is dead. You look up, feeling inspired by their triumphs. At the same time, you feel hollow. Was their journey pointless?
From achievement to meaning
We were heading home. Our long flight from Italy back to the US gave me plenty of time to think. I reflected on the Roman emperors. On the colosseum. Of how spectacular it would be to rule as caesar back in the golden days of that nation. To be the person at the top of the pyramid. I stood up to stretch my legs. I looked out the window, over the vast Atlantic. And it was then that the thought washed over me: they’re dead. All of them. The rulers, the builders, the founders, and the creators. Whatever legacy they left behind, whatever they established, it’s irrelevant. They’re gone.
History may remember them, but who cares?
It was terrifying to realize. Up till that point, my aim was achievement. To found something amazing. Because I admired those greats of history. Those individuals who erected the world we live in today. However, I’ve come to realize it is meaningless. The emperor may have been at the top of the pyramid, but if he was miserable that’s all that really matters. If his existence was one of pain, suffering, and sadness, it doesn’t matter how many citizens lived within his realm. His life was one of misery and that’s the only thing of importance.
The morbid lesson of mortality
Biographies teach you many things. They guide you through history. They help you learn from others. But there is something darker that is just as important. They remind you of the irrelevance of it all. Of the death guaranteed us and the pointlessness of our efforts. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what da Vinci painted. Nor does it matter what bridges Moses constructed. Nor how much money Rockefeller left in trust. Because they’re gone. Their candle is extinguished. And while their contributions are often praised by society, on an individual level it was all for nothing.
But there’s good news. Let their irrelevancy serve as your wake-up call.
Achievement alone doesn’t matter. It’s inconsequential to be at the top of a pyramid you despise. Instead, use that knowledge to help you correct course. Recognize that a life of vapid ambition won’t mean anything at the end of the day. What truly matters is fulfillment. Regardless if you spend your time building computers or intentional diplomacy, cartoon magic or monopolies, fulfillment is the crux.
You have this one chance, this one life. If you waste it on activities you despise, you’re wasting your shot. If you let the expectations of others force you into a kingdom you don’t belong in, you do a disservice to yourself. You have your one life. And while there are many facets to it, I urge you to keep personal fulfillment front and center. I’m not talking about hedonism. I’m talking about fulfillment. Where hedonism says live it up, fulfillment says live for meaning.
His one regret
I dread the end of biographies. I don’t like being reminded of the brief time we have. Yet when I consider the lives of those I read about, I ask myself: Were their efforts worth it? Several months ago, I completed Shoe Dog by Phil Knight*. Knight is the co-founder of Nike and Shoe Dog is the story of its creation. At the end of the book, as Phil recounted his time, he mentioned he had one regret. His regret was that he couldn’t go back and do it all again.
He loved building Nike. He loved the highs and the lows. The challenges and obstacles. He was massively fulfilled in creating it. So were his efforts worth it? Absolutely. Because even if Nike never made it big, even if we had never heard of it, he was fulfilled by the work. He sat at the top of the pyramid and was proud to be there. He derived meaning from it and that’s all that matters.
*Phil Knight is still alive. Normally I try to read biographies of people who have already passed. That way I get their full story, not just one half or one quarter. This book seemed interesting though so I went for it. It was great and I recommend it. Especially if you’re a runner.
Moving forward with new perspective
The most disturbing part of any biography is the end. When the protagonist dies. It is a harsh reminder of our own mortality and meaninglessness of daily life. However, in that morbidity is a reminder. If existence is fleeting, fulfillment is the metric by which to weigh your life. Not by the number of individuals you rule, but by how you feel when you wake up. Not by the quantity of parks you build, but by how you feel sitting down to work each day.
Biographies provide lessons in resilience and perseverance. They provide hope for a brighter future.
But more importantly, they remind you of what matters. Not the fame or prestige, not the size of the bank account or the collection of art. What matters is the work you love, the people you enjoy, the home you cherish. Optimize for fulfillment and, like Phil Knight, the only regret you’ll have is that you can’t do it all again.