Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book Report: Barack Obama's autobiography

I am generally not a very political person and I did not start reading this book for political reasons. As such, I start this review in an unusual fashion.

In 2004 as Jessica Simpson was getting ready to marry Nick Lachey, she came out with a book entitled "Jessica Simpson I Do: Achieving Your Dream Wedding". In fairness, I never read this book. I did, however, see her interviewed on a few different talk shows when she was promoting it so I got the gist of what her advice was:
  1. Get yourself a million dollars
  2. Spend it on a really nice wedding
While that may have worked for her, it wasn't advice that was terribly practical for the general public.

I know, you're asking yourself, "What could this possibly have to do with Barack Obama?" Well, a time tested formula for having a best-selling book is:
  1. Become famous
  2. Write a best-selling book
This strategy has worked for the likes of Jenny McCarthy (getting naked for Playboy clearly makes you an expert on pregnancy), Clay Aiken (he seems like a nice guy with an incredible story, but if he'd never been on American Idol nobody would give him a book deal for his biography), and our good friend/wedding planning expert Jessica Simpson.

Among the fascinating aspects of: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is that it was written BEFORE anybody ever heard of him. He was given the chance to write his biography based on being the first African-American to be president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. As amazing as that feat is in itself, I honestly can't think of another celebrity, politician, or sports figure that penned his life story prior to gaining regular attention from the mainstream media and the ripple effect it has had on his Presidential candidacy 15 years later is significant.

Why? Because in this text, Obama is extremely candid and honest about his own fears, mistakes, and shortcomings in a way that no political candidate ever would be if they wrote their life story after already being elected to high office, as is normally the case. Instead, any and all skeletons that Obama might have (including admission of cocaine and other drug use) are all out in the open and written before he had any incentive to cover them up. The result reads as a compelling and genuine self-portrait.

As I've written in this space before, one way to spark your own success is to study generally acknowledged successful people or organizations (whether it be Eddie Murphy, Disneyland, or the 1994 San Fransisco 49ers). That, not politics, is what drew me to this book initially. When you examine success in this way, you can usually find something to take away and use in your own life or career in some fashion.

From Barack Obama, I got inspired.

A lot.

Just about anybody should be inspired by the accomplishments he has achieved despite the odds that have faced him. As he said himself in his famous 2004 DNC speech, "Tonight is a particular honor for me because - let's face it - my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely." Born in Hawaii to a Kenyan exchange student father and a mother transplanted from Kansas, he spent much of his childhood in Indonesia before starting his undergraduate education at Occidental College in Southern California. He then transfered to Columbia University where he earned a degree in Political Science. This was one of many points in this book where I stopped and thought to myself, "He did THAT. What did YOU do today?"

I grew up in suburban, middle-class Los Angeles, never struggling to come to grips with my mixed race as he did or my absent father since my parents remain married to this day. Despite my advantages, did I earn an Ivy League education? Nope.

Obama takes that degree and, instead of finding an high-powered job with it, goes to inner city Chicago to become a community organizer where he leads people from Altgeld Gardens in a variety of neighborhood and economic improvement programs. Some are successful and others are not, but along the way he sees a side of low income families that most eventual national politicians never see. Again I thought to myself,"He did THAT. What did YOU do today?" Prior to his tenure at Harvard Law, the book concludes with a section chronicling an extensive trip to Kenya to visit his father's side of his family for the first time in his life. There, he does a lot of soul searching and ultimately finds peace with his complicated heritage upon learning the full family history, including the facets of both his father's and grandfather's lives that influenced the decisions they made that continue to have an impact on him.

Fast forward to present times and there are probably only 3 or 4 people who have as good or better a chance as he does at becoming the 44th President of the United States, and by extension, the most powerful person in the world. To read about his struggles and inner conflicts in a forum where he had no incentive to obscure his honesty for professional gain was extremely moving. Even if he never wins another election, we can all be inspired by his journey and have it motivate change in ours.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 10:37 PM   4 comments


At 8:32 PM, Blogger Liz said...

It's funny timing that you wrote this post because I was just at the bookstore the other day and I almost bought his book but didn't. I will make a point to go and get it though. I spent 20 years in Chicago and had occasion to meet Barak at one point (charming, smart, tall). He is extremely well regarded by influential people in Chicago whom I respect. He is an inspirational guy...and his wife is pretty amazing too.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment, Liz. I knew you spent a lot of time in Chicago, that's very cool that you got to meet him.

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous Carolynn Duncan said...


Nice summary. I think I'll try to hunt down the book as well. When I think of Barak Obama, I think of him as a sneak attack candidate that may have a really good shot at the presidency.

Especially when things get out there like this that evidence him as a solid, decent person.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

Hi Carolynn,

I completely agree. I picked up a New Yorker today, which has a feature article on him currently. It almost comes out and says he wrote this biography to set the stage for later political gain. While I find that hard to believe, if it is true it's as brilliant as I think his real reasons for writing the book are honest.

I have no plans to pick up The Audacity of Hope because that's clearly a political vehicle. But, if The New Yorker is right and he thought that far ahead, that's pretty amazing too.


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