Here is an insightful article.
Forbes.com Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author
Lessons From The Great
When businesspeople ask me what they should read, I always reply, “Books on the lives of great men and women.” No one becomes great without having some special quality that a biographer can isolate and a reader study and emulate.
Lately I’ve been writing short biographies of 50,000 words. Writing a book means reading widely, seriously and systematically and taking careful notes, sorting your thoughts, arranging them logically and, finally, getting them down on paper in a clear and elegant manner. This way some of the knowledge sticks, and you pass it on to your readers.
In recent years I’ve produced short books on the lives of Napoleon, George Washington, Winston Churchill and Jesus. I’ve just completed one on the life of Socrates that will be published this autumn and another on Darwin that will come out next year. Currently I’m engaged in the life of Wolfgang Mozart, my first musical biography. These books encompass seven totally different lives and are all of men supreme in their calling. What can we–especially those in business–learn from them?
- Napoleon. The lesson from his life is clear: The important thing about success is knowing when to stop. Had Napoleon stopped after his victory over the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, he’d have enjoyed a long and honorable retirement and gone down in history as a man of moderation whose brilliance never obscured his judgment. As it was, he went from victories to near defeats to outright defeat and humiliating exile on a rock in the Atlantic.
The number of successful businessmen who haven’t learned this lesson is legion–and growing all the time.
- Washington. He was the opposite of Napoleon. After liberating the 13 colonies, Washington retired to his farm in Virginia. The moral? A successful general should not seek political power; he should wait to be called by the unanimous voice of the people.
Businesspeople should also wait for the summons before jumping into politics–and it should be a pretty general one before they obey it.
- Churchill. Though he experienced tremendous triumphs and terrific downfalls, Churchill’s motto was “Never despair.” He is the ideal role model for anyone whose business collapses or meets a deadly reversal. Churchill never gave up. Learning from his mistakes, he picked himself up, dusted himself off and had another go at things.
- Jesus. He taught that people are infinitely more important than things and that all people matter. He went out of his way to meet the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, the outcasts of society. In an overwhelmingly masculine world, he took time to listen to women–and learned from them. Thus, the New Testament is a rich source of instruction for anyone working in the materialistic worlds of business and finance.
- Socrates. The moral from his life? Never think you know all the answers. The oracle of Delphi, when asked who the wisest man in Athens was, replied: “Socrates.” He himself commented, “Yes, and I suspect I know why. I am ignorant. I know nothing. But at least I know I know nothing. There are a lot of clever people in Athens who think they know it all. Foolish fellows!”
Wisdom lies not in possessing knowledge–which quickly becomes outdated–but in perpetually seeking it.
- Darwin. He was brilliant at observing tiny creatures. Nothing is so small as to be insignificant. The smaller something is, the more carefully you should note what it’s doing, and why, and draw conclusions from those findings.
This atomic approach can be aptly applied to business. You must think big on occasion, but you should always observe the little things, storing them carefully in your mind. Success in business is, essentially, getting countless small things right. The big things then follow naturally.
- Mozart. His lesson? Start early. At the age of 3 Mozart was picking out chords on keyboard instruments and remembering musical passages he’d heard; at 4 he learned small pieces and played them correctly; at 5 he was composing short pieces; at 6 he was performing them in public. Thus the foundation for his encyclopedic, instinctive and hypersensitive knowledge of music was laid.
You can’t start too early in business. And business knowledge is not the only– or necessarily the most important–kind of knowledge to have. The remarkable thing about Mozart is that he also acquired a good general education while making his living as a child prodigy.
Most of us are not geniuses. Following Mozart’s example too rigidly might stop us from learning those lessons taught by other noted men and women. The most successful of us are likely to be those learners who have a whole pantheon of role models they admire, study and seek to follow.