10 Inspirational Autobiographies From People Who Never Gave Up

A good book can be hard to beat. From thought leaders to legendary sports people and innovative thinkers, these are the motivational picks that you won’t want to put down.

It’s always a good time to settle down with a decent read, especially if you’re searching for inspiration.

What all of these books have in common is a sense of resilience – a determination to succeed against all the odds.

Think of this as your library for success, an essential font of inspiration you can return to again and again. Just don’t forget to take notes along the way…


Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

Beloved by everyone from actor Josh Brolin to surf legend Kelly Slater, William Finnegan’s memoir is a must-read book for anyone in search of escape, growth, or meaning through the meditative power of the ocean.

From his origins in California and Hawaii to surf trips across the South Pacific, Asia, Africa and Australia, the New Yorker staff reporter recounts how a bookish boy became one of the world’s most distinguished writers – and surfers – through an addiction-level commitment to studying the craft of life. Broad and beautiful in scope, no wonder this bagged a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Crucially, it works best as a meditation on the patience required to navigate the often uncontrollable ebb and flow of life. “After a few moments of this stomach-turning suspended animation, you would suddenly start rocketing down the coast, with the boulders turning into a long white blur under blue water,” Finnegan writes of waiting to catch a wave. In surfing, as in life, the best way to catch the wave is simply to wait it out.

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My Life: Queen of the Court by Daniel Paisner and Serena Williams

Is Serena Williams the sporting GOAT? Let’s consider it: she has won more Grand Slam singles titles than any man or woman (23), and along with her sister Venus has bagged14 Grand Slam doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals. The Will Smith film King Richard (2021) offered a glimpse into the sisters’ early lives hustling to be taken seriously in Compton, but for a proper insight, it’s hard to beat Serena’s first autobiography. (That is, until her just-announced next autobiography publishes in 2024).

From welcoming difficulties to learning to ground yourself despite your success, Williams offers an invaluable insight into her psyche. From setting your goals to visualizing coming out on top, and the power of positive thinking, this is an incredibly uplifting and motivating manual for winning. “Have only positivity going through your body,” Williams writes. “Be the best. Being the best starts by acting like U R the best. Believing U R the best. Becoming the best. Believe. Become.”

Poignant and powerful, this is a true lesson in strength and determination.

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Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

The Ben Affleck film Air tells the story of how Nike signed Michael Jordan, launching one of the biggest signature shoes of all time in the process. But it’s only half the story. In Shoe Dog, Nike co-founder Phil Knight explains how he hustled to create one of the world’s biggest brands, beginning with a $50 loan in 1962 at the age of 24.

60 years on, Nike is worth $164.72 billion. But, recalling his triumphs, peaks and troughs, Knight remains humble, and funny to boot. They key takeaway? Surround yourself with teammates you trust, and with whom you share a unique vision. Soon, they’ll become family.

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The Diary of a CEO: The 33 Laws of Business and Life by Steven Bartlett

Part autobiography, part guide for life, entrepreneur and podcaster Steven Bartlett’s second book is far more than just a simple business checklist – although, as the founder of Thirdweb, a Dragon’s Den investor and Huel board member, there is plenty of insider info.

The real treasure is Bartlett’s insights into building success, and navigating failure. Armed with insight from the thousands of guests who have appeared on his podcast – including Rio Ferdinand and business leader Mary Portas – Bartlett bares his (at times painful) experience so that you might prosper from it.

Perhaps the key takeaway of the 33 is "Don't attack beliefs, inspire new ones" i.e. you might not agree with someone, but arguments have never been the way to success. Instead, try to lead by example, fostering conversations about how you – and your team – can grow towards success, whatever the obstacles.

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The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor by Eddie Jaku

Truly a tale of making the most out of the toughest times imaginable, Jaku’s autobiography is essential reading for everyone. Born just prior to World War 2, Jaku found himself beaten and abducted, taken with his family and everyone he knew to the Nazi concentration camps.

That’s exactly as heavy as it sounds, but Jaku refused to let his experiences break him. Instead, he leaned into the power of positivity and made a vow to smile every day. Here he pays tribute to those that were lost in a powerful yet hopeful memoir of how he became the ‘happiest man on earth’ through sheer willpower alone.

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his late 30s, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi refused to just lie down and wait for the end. Becoming a patient in the very hospital where he had cared for so many others, Kalanithi set to work documenting his transformation from medical student to a neurosurgeon, father, and patient.

Along the way he ponders what it means to live a virtuous and meaningful life. “I had spent so much time studying literature at Stanford and the history of medicine at Cambridge in an attempt to better understand the particularities of death, only to come away feeling like they were still unknowable to me,” he writes.

It’s a story of dedication, and perfectionism – becoming a neurosurgeon takes endless work, after all. But, after his diagnosis Kalanithi begins to question “what really matters in life”, a choice that leads him back to his lapsed religion, and prompts him and his wife to have a child so that his legacy may live on.

Truly, a complex, and inspirational read about how in a world without answers, the only thing we can really do is our best.

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Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover

For over 20 years, performance coach Tim Grover has trained everyone from businesspeople to the best athletes in the world, including basketballers Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade to unleash their inner potential and help them go from good to great. In Relentless, Grover puts pen to paper to reveal the life secrets he teaches – secrets which can help you achieve mental and physical dominance over yourself, and your ambitions by asking are you a Cooler, Closer, or a Cleaner

According to Grover, Coolers are good, Closers great, and Cleaners unstoppable. What makes them so good? A willingness to disregard the established rules and forge their own path, even breaking their own rules if they have to.

Crucially, it’s the inner drive – based on emotional triggers from their past – that motivates Cleaners to succeed above and beyond even physical talent. But combine the two and – as we saw with Michael Jordan and his desire to be the very best, even in a team of greats – the results are unstoppable.

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The Mamba Mentality: How I Play by Kobe Bryant

Before you argue that the late, great, Bryant belongs in the ‘Athlete’ section, consider that his patented ‘Mamba Mentality’ – an unrelenting desire to be the best, whether you’re shooting hoops in the NBA or washing cars for a living – was arguably the greatest driving force behind his monumental career, and one that still inspires athletes, designers and thinkers today.

So far reaching was this thesis that it even influenced a killer pair of ‘Mamba Mentality’ Nike shoes, designed by the late, great Virgil Abloh, who subscribed to Bryant’s outlook on how to conduct oneself.

It’s heady stuff. In this guidebook, Bryant outlines his personal journey on and off the basketball court, offering a glimpse inside the mind of one of the most analytical and creative icons in modern sport leadership.“I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable,” Bryant wrote.

“That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves…I always aimed to kill the opposition.”

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

No, that surname isn’t a pseudonym, and yes, this book was the basis for the Reece Witherspoon film of the same name. Finding herself in a rut following an abusive past and a reliance on heroin, at the age of 26 writer Cheryl Strayed set out on a 1,100-mile hike along America’s stunning Pacific Crest Trail. Its purpose, she writes, was “​​to save myself.” The result is the archetypal journal of self-discovery, and a New York Times bestseller. Following her mother’s death, she departs “unmoored by sorrow."

It’s a book about dealing with trauma and drug addiction, a book about the power of nature and movement, a book about acceptance, and growth both physical, spiritual, and emotional. Ultimately, the meditative power of hiking the PCT– not to mention the hunger, heat, cold, loneliness and fear of hiking as a woman alone – proved to be Strayed’s “way back to the person I used to be." All in all, a classic of the genre.

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Mad, Bad, And Dangerous To Know by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Undoubtedly, the ultimate British explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has traveled to the most dangerous and inaccessible places on earth, coming close to death countless times, including while attempting to become the first person to travel to both Poles by land.

Oh, and he once sawed off his own fingertips after getting frostbite. While we don’t suggest you do the same, there is much to be learned about resilience, teamwork, and the power of self-determination from this soldier, mountaineer and athlete (who once nearly replaced Sean Connery as James Bond, FYI). “Always the leader and always the best,” says Bear Grylls. Hear, hear.

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