Sports stars

Like many young guys, I pictured myself as a great baseball player when I grew up. Unfortunately, I had three skill challenges: I couldn’t hit well, I was slow, and I couldn’t throw the ball where I wanted it to go.

But that never kept me away from reading biographies about my favorite players. I marveled at their skills, and wondered what separated great players from the good ones. Sports biographies reminded me that the superstars shared these traits:

= Dedication — The great ones discovered early that they had gifts, and committed themselves to using those gifts.

= Specialization — If they had one stand-out skill, they practiced that skill constantly.

= Replication — Their goal was to excel in a specialty, and excel day after day throughout their careers.

The secret: Have you ever heard that saying that “sports are like the game of life?” I think that’s true. Dedication, specialization, and replication should help most of us excel in our chosen careers.

Neighborhood biography

Heroic stories are all around us, if we just take the time to search them out. Here’s how:

When visiting someone’s office or home, pay attention to what’s posted on their walls, or displayed on bookcases. Do family pictures sometimes include someone famous?

If you like to to write, you can offer neighbors a valuable service by offering to chronicle important events in a grandparent’s or relative’s life.

While at an annual physical a few years ago, I noticed my doctor had a new display on his wall that commemorated the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I asked him about it, and discovered he was one of the first doctors to come ashore on that day.

I learned something new about a person I’d always admired, and after that day I respected him even more.

The secret: There are unassuming heroes all around us, and we can discover them if we just take the time to ask a few questions.

Another Babe Ruth story

How many stories have you heard about the legendary baseball slugger Babe Ruth? In 1927, he banged out an amazing 60 home runs. That record stood until 1961.

Babe was a big man. He ate big. He talked big. And whenever he came up to bat, it’s said he “swung for the fences.” He once said that “If I just tried to hit singles, I’d have a .600 batting average.” He’s probably right.

One time, somebody asked the Babe if he felt guilty for making more money than the President of the United States. “Well,” countered Babe, “how many home runs did the President hit last year?”

The secret: Did you ever notice how many famous people in history get remembered for only one thing? Babe Ruth knew what he did best. He knew what brought him fame. And he constantly strived to improve his home run performance.

The very first biography

What do we know about the first biography ever communicated? Actually, not anything!

It wasn’t written, but simply conveyed from one human to another in some primitive spoken, drawn, or sign-language format.

It might have been two cave people telling their individual stories around a campfire. Or it could have been in memorial form…a tribe speaking about another tribesman who had passed away.

Whatever the case, we think it contained three elements: (a) the person’s ancestry, life chronology, and progeny; (b) the person’s skill or specialty; (c) how other tribespeople can benefit from knowing that person.

In the many centuries since then, we’ve made entire professions out of history, biography, and sociology, which give us a better understanding about human nature and the complexities of society.

But what interests me most is an often upspoken element: what special message can each of our life stories provide to others?

The secret: Each time you read a biography or a memoir, ask yourself what special message that person has left for future generations.

Horseless carriages

Back 100 years ago, those motorized carriages made so much noise when they puttered along, they scared the horses. So in 1894, Vermont passed a law that said if you drove on a public road, you had to send somebody ahead to warn the buggy traffic.

That made sense. But unfortunately, motorcars and horses never worked well as road partners. The four-legged kind used less fuel, but you can’t air condition a horse. So, gradually, cars took over family transportation chores.

The secret: Many inventions are hybrids…the coupling of prior technologies. Examples: movies (pictures and recorded sound) and bifocal glasses (combined distance and magnifying lenses).

Finding the best YOU

There’s a great old story about the 12-year-old who told his baseball coach he wanted to be the next Babe Ruth.

“That’s a noble goal, son,” the coach says. “And you only lack three things to be just like the Babe.”

“What are they?” asked the boy.

“Size, strength, and power,” the coach smiled. When the boy frowned, the coach asked, “But why must you be another Babe?”

“You know you can place hit the ball, field well, and throw accurately. Don’t try to be another Babe. Just be the best you you can be.”

The Secret: Those of us who work as biographers aren’t looking for duplicates. We want to tell the stories of unique individuals whose special talents or perspectives enlighten readers.

The defeat dichotomy

Yes, we know that defeat is the opposite of victory. But in biographies, defeat is often the obstacle folks need to overcome to achieve success.

Who wants to read a story about somebody who always wins, or never faces a disappointment or dilemma?

Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Davy Crockett, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Franklin Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks all lead completely different lives. But their greatness came from facing a dilemma — or a defeat — and then overcoming it.

The secret: The values most of us want to communicate are honesty, integrity, kindness, and striving to improve oneself each day. Biographies about people who overcame hardships to achieve success are the best way to communicate those values.

Why read biographies?

The philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I feel the same way about biographies, with two important additions.

1 Biographies can address not only past performance, but current performance as well. We can read about famous historical figures, and also about our contemporaries. Each type gives us insight into successful ideas and innovative problem-solving.

2. History is often written in chronology form, and discusses how one event leads to another. Biographies can be presented chronologically, as memoirs (references to highlights in a person’s life), or as a flashback (where the story begins well into a person’s life, and then looks back at the early years).

Since the beginning of recorded history, people have passed along information in the form of stories…both factual and fictional. Virtually all those stories discuss how a human solves a program.

The secret: A dedicated biography reader — using only a library card — can absorb instant information from the greatest minds who ever walked the earth. That education is free…and at the same time it’s priceless.

The ideal story format?

Way back in high school, I dreaded having to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. After all, it was written over 600 years ago! What could that old dude know about life in the 20th century?

But the answer was…a lot! Chaucer knew people well, because he’d been a diplomat who had worked for three kings of England. And he had also been a civil servant, where he had worked with many different kinds of people.

He brought all the skills to his brilliant Canterbury Tales, a group of stories about 30 individuals who take a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. To pass the time during the journey, the travellers decide to hold a storytelling contest.

That’s how we readers meet a knight, a merchant, a miller, the wife of Bath, and several others. Each has a story to tell, or a fable, or a legend. During the book, we hear 24 powerful tales about human goals, adventures, and aspirations which are still relevant today.

The secret: How many books, movies, and TV shows can you name that involve a journey, or a quest to pursue a career or goal? Thank you, Mr. Chaucer, for pioneering the brilliant travel story format!

Ebenezer Scrooge

One of the world’s most famous people never really lived. Yet every year in December, we talk about this famous tightwad from Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol.

As you’ll remember, Scrooge has little regard for other humans until he’s visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, on Christmas eve. Marley, a discouraged spirit, warns Scrooge that he’ll also be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future during the evening.

Those ghosts do appear. The Past reminds Scrooge that his miserliness distanced him from a woman he might have married. The Present transports Scrooge to the happy home of his employee, where he hears himself described in unflattering terms. The Future cautions Scrooge to mend his ways, and start helping those who might give his life happiness.

Scrooge takes their advice, and begins to share his time and fortune with others.

The secret: We can’t rewrite the past, but we can rebuild the present, and then strive for a more positive future.