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Learning to live and lead: 5 memoirs that teach us how to find inspiration in diverse challenges

While reflecting on books that have impacted me, I realized many were memoirs, and they covered similar themes: each provided a unique glimpse into the lives of people from diverse backgrounds who have overcome setbacks or obstacles.

Business leaders tend to face many of the same challenges: from scaling a team to finding ways to create a positive and lasting culture, it’s hard to know the right way every time. Mentors, colleagues, and even podcasts are solid resources, but a tried-and-true method of gathering fresh advice is through books. Books can share inspiration and ample tips for leaders of all titles and organizations. In fact, many CEOs read up to 60 books per year to build up a range of knowledge on leadership topics — but you don’t need to be in the C-suite to benefit from this practice, nor do you need to commit to that impressive of a  feat.

While reflecting on the books that have impacted me most over the past year, I realized they didn’t fall under typical ‘business’ or ‘self-help’ genres with how-to titles. They were all memoirs, and they covered similar themes: each provided a unique glimpse into the lives of people from diverse backgrounds who have overcome setbacks or obstacles.

For business leaders looking to round out their 2019 reading list, here are a few of my favorites that reveal facets of the world many might not be familiar with — and what each author’s unique background and identity can teach us about how to live and lead.

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

This memoir is a compelling account of lives defended by a compassionate young lawyer and a window into the ways mercy can redeem us. It illustrates the importance of digging deeper into the ‘why’ to reach the root of problems in modern society and our justice system. Books like this one and nonprofit organizations like The Innocence Project, committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, help us move the needle on problems bigger than just one case or person.

While the gravity and impact of stories shared throughout this book are not directly applicable to problems we face as business leaders, we can take away the importance of fully comprehending the ‘why’ in any situation before making a judgment. When faced with problems at work, whether business or employee-related, taking a step back to recognize the root of what caused the issue before diving in to solve it will lead to a more impactful solution.

Maid, by Stephanie Land and Barbara Ehrenreich

Maid is Stephanie Land’s memoir of working as a cleaner for upper-middle-class American families. In this book, she shares personal stories of her relationships with these families and illustrates what it’s like to pursue the American dream from below the poverty line.

Through her journey as a maid, Stephanie shows readers the benefits of approaching life and work with positivity, even amidst challenging circumstances and obstacles. This lesson translates not only to everyday life but to finding success as a leader as well. Whether setting your sights on a role five years out, solving a complex issue, or leading a broad transformation on your team, always acknowledging small successes along the way will ultimately yield the greatest win in the long-run. And focusing on those minor achievements will not only lead you to the big picture but will also keep you motivated along the way.

Educated, by Tara Westover 

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of her quest for knowledge, following her journey from her survivalist parents not allowing her to attend school to working her way up and earning a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. A popular book club choice as of late, Educated offers key learnings for leaders as well. 

One lesson this book teaches is that your voice is an incredibly powerful tool. As a leader, you have to be brave enough to use it — and willing to embrace the conflict and discomfort that accompanies sharing a controversial opinion. I consider myself an introvert, and I’ve found it challenging at times to speak up throughout my career. But I’ve also learned that growing and moving into new roles requires overcoming the fear of sharing your opinion. Pushing yourself to speak up even when it feels intimidating will help establish a voice that will empower you throughout your career.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance and Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance accounts his experience from growing up in a poor Rust Belt town to working his way to Yale Law School, sharing how upward mobility feels amidst the struggles of this class and the family legacy he left behind. In Heartland, Sarah Smarsh shares her story of growing up as a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer, giving readers a glimpse into the struggles of working-class Americans in the heartland.

I grouped these two books together because both cover the same themes and represent a melting pot of current social issues, including poverty, racism, religion, substance abuse, education, and domestic violence. While both offer many lessons for leaders, a key theme that ran throughout both books was that each individual owns the power to create his or her destiny. Even with few resources and a legacy that says otherwise, these two stories confirm you can be anything you want to be with diligent focus and hard work. While you’ll certainly hit obstacles along the way, the way you react at these critical junctures will shape both who you become as a person and the outcome itself. 

Beyond achieving personal goals, this lesson applies to overcoming challenges in the workplace, too. Whether embarking on a daunting project or starting a new job, it’s critical to set a goal and recognize at the start that you’ll encounter roadblocks along the way. Navigating through them by staying focused will almost always lead to a positive outcome.

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