These are the books selected for the 2023 Narrative & Biography category, curated by Porchlight's Managing Editor Jasmine Gonzalez.
Years ago, a curious story circulated online, highlighting the fact that office air conditioning systems were calibrated using data from the 1930s to just one particular body type. “He was probably,” writes Rae Ellen Bichell for NPR, “about 40 years old, 155 pounds, white and wearing a suit. And he's the reason why women are shivering at their desks in air-conditioned buildings.” Though this may sound trivial, studies have shown that people working in uncomfortable temperatures are prone to repeated errors and spotty concentration. Beyond office air conditioning, this archetype of the human body has gone on to dictate the standard for everything from crash test dummies to dosages of medication to the size of aircraft cockpits—by only considering the safety requirements for one body type, many others were long left at the risk of suffering needless serious injury or death.
The pantheon of business biographies is not unlike this air conditioning scenario. Our shelves have been filled with the stories of people who are often white, male, ultra-wealthy CEOs, from Jack Welch to Warren Buffett to Steve Jobs and beyond. There are lessons to learn from their stories, of course, but as readers, we must make it a practice to actively expand our perspectives. Otherwise, we end up with narrow ideas of what success looks like; we create spaces where people aren’t comfortable to be their full selves and can’t reach their highest potential. But when we opt to see the world from perspectives beyond the same few examples, we become more empathetic and expansive. We are reminded that we are not alone and that our unique ways of shaping the world are equally valuable.
As my colleague Dylan writes (emphasis mine), “We need to counter the idea that ‘what is good for business’ is a purely financial consideration and start considering the people and planet that form the foundation of our, and all, economies.” Humanity is rich in diversity of thought, and it is worth celebrating and learning from. If we want to overcome the social isolation and divisions that have set in over the past few years, we need to be proactive about seeking out each other’s stories and meeting one another with curiosity and appreciation. Nothing else can truly be accomplished until we have learned to honor and care for one another.
I’ve curated this year’s selection of books in the Narrative & Biography category with the hopes of capturing a rich mosaic of ideas that will broaden any reader’s horizons and foster a renewed sense of empathy.
Awaken: The Path to Purpose, Inner Peace & Healing by Raj Sisodia, Wiley
“I have sought answers to timeless questions that are relevant to all humans: How can we stay true to ourselves? How can we live in alignment with what we’re meant to bring into the world? How can we manifest love and strength in equal and full measure?”
Business writer and marketing professor Raj Sisodia presents an honest and moving portrayal of his life in his latest book, Awaken, calling upon readers to reconnect with their own stories along the way. Born to the deeply patriarchal Kshatriya caste and growing up in the shadow of a brilliant yet distant father, Sisodia’s nature more closely reflects his mother’s: “trusting, idealistic, and peace-loving,” yet “planted in soil that was not hospitable to those qualities.” Torn between societal expectations and his innate sense of self, Sisodia spends decades attempting to conform to an idealized version of himself as a son, husband, father, and professional, feeling numb and without a strong sense of purpose in the process.
It is when he begins research for the book that would become Firms of Endearment (also a Porchlight Business Book Awards winner!) that his innate creativity and his sensitivity towards the stories of others begins to spring through the cracks in his exterior shell. His desire to understand whether the business world can be more human centered sets off a difficult yet necessary personal journey towards confronting intergenerational family traumas, seeking healing and forgiveness, and honoring the full humanity of the parents who raised him.
Awaken invites anyone who is struggling with a sense of disengagement to pause, rediscover themselves, and find the path to flourishing again.
He/She/They: How We Talk About Gender and Why It Matters by Schuyler Bailar, Hachette Go
“Thank you, again, for your willingness to connect, learn, and educate yourself and others. I hope through inviting you into my humanity, you’ve also been invited into your own. Here it sits, waiting for you.”
The level at which legislators across the country have been working to turn anti-trans hatred into law is horrific, and evidence of our society’s increasing inability to see the shared humanity in one another. When a section of our population is under attack, we need to be even more intentional about seeking out and elevating their stories.
Collegiate swimmer Schuyler Bailar catapulted into the national spotlight while at Harvard University, following his transition and a transfer to the Harvard Men's Swimming and Diving team, becoming the first openly transgender man to compete for a NCAA Division I men’s team. During this time, he also began his career as an educator on transgender inclusion, giving talks across the country to raise awareness and foster community connection. “[I] am a firm believer that most people are good people,” Bailar writes. “Some just need a little help finding the right words, trans or not.”
Bailar cautions well-intended readers that the journey to better understanding and empathizing with the trans community should not come at the cost of turning trans individuals into reluctant educators—a lesson that should be applied when considering any marginalized community. “Although some trans folks will welcome your (appropriately and kindly phrased) questions,” he writes, “many will not, and none should be obligated to do so. Your trans friend is not your trans encyclopedia.” With his book, Bailar has in fact created a kind of trans encyclopedia, with each chapter covering topics and terminology around gender, pronouns, medical treatments, and more.
But facts can only take us so far. As Bailar writes, it’s necessary to “[let] your heart lead—your compassion and empathy will foster greater allyship than any step-by-step suggestions could.” He weaves in stories and pictures from his life, offering an accessible educational journey that is both backed by research and highly emotive.
I wish the book He/She/They could have arrived in more peaceful times, that it could simply be cherished as the beautiful memoir and educational text that it is. As it stands, however, it is a necessary tool for turning the tide of bigotry that threatens to drown us.
Life on Other Planets: A Memoir of Finding My Place in the Universe by Aomawa Shields, PhD, Viking
“What do I want for you? I want you to look up and be amazed. I want you to feel supported, less lonely and afraid, a part of rather than apart from. I want you to ask that question you have been wanting to ask, and let go of worrying whether someone already asked it while you were daydreaming, or whether someone will think it’s stupid or impossible to answer. I want you to know, but not just know, feel, deep down in your belly, that who you are is magnificent.”
There’s something deeply dystopian about asking children what they want to be when they grow up—hello, little one, how do you plan to incorporate yourself into the capitalist machine? But I enjoy the multi-hyphenated answers they often give, unburdened by societal expectations and fueled entirely by imagination, reflective of the things they love most. (Growing up, I wanted to be a cartoonist-chef-author—who’s to say it won’t still happen?) Somewhere along the way, those dreams often get curtailed by others’ expectations of what is possible and by our own self-doubt, and it’s rare that we ever pick them back up again in earnest.
This is what drew me to Life on Other Planets. Dr. Aomawa Shields’ story is a rare triumph, offering the hope that dreams deferred are never fully lost as long as we choose to believe in ourselves.
Growing up, Shields fell in love with the stars and dreamed of a career exploring the mysteries of space. While in high school, she also discovered a passion for the arts and acting and found herself balancing two loves that seemed unrelated. As she began pursuing her PhD in astrophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she found herself plagued with self-doubt and struggling to acclimate to her new surroundings. Instead of receiving the encouragement she needed to persevere, she found herself dissuaded from her career path by a white male professor who implied that she didn’t belong in the program. So began a decade-long career as a professional actress—a career that Shields found fulfilling and that she triumphed in, but still left her longing for her original love of astronomy.
In his book Love + Work, Marcus Buckingham writes, “Trust that what you lean into, what makes you happy, what makes you feel in control, what brings you joy—trust that these little love signs are worth taking seriously, because each one, despite what anyone may tell you, is utterly unique to you.” Shields tunes into these love signs, eventually returning to a career in space by taking a job NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope before finally enrolling in a PhD program again. This time, rather than seeing her love of space and her love of the art as two separate paths, she braids them together to become a researcher, educator, and founder of Rising Stargirls, using the arts to expand space education to youth from underrepresented backgrounds.
So many of us find ourselves on linear tracks in our school, work, and family lives, sticking to what we know even when it no longer fulfills us. Life on Other Planets calls on readers to return to their innate expansiveness and to fearlessly uncover possibilities beyond their known boundaries.
Sideman: In Pursuit of the Next Gig by Mark Rivera, Matt Holt
“There’s an expression he had—come sin vergüenza, which means ‘eat without shame.’ In other words, if you’re eating a peach, take the bite and let the juice run down your chin—don’t let your pleasure embarrass you. My father believed a person should always live like that: dance like no one is looking, sing like no one is listening. Just enjoy it and be totally absorbed in the moment.”
It’s easy to overthink things—our school choices, our career choices, our life choices. It’s easy to overthink tasks at hand—in my case, trying to write this short review. When I get stuck in my writing, I try to remind myself, how would I talk about this to someone I love?
Because that’s all anything boils down to, isn’t it? Love.
There are so many things that make Sideman an incredible read.
There’s the journey that Mark Rivera takes us on, from his humble beginnings in Brooklyn learning to play saxophone for the first time to his decades-long career backing up some of the most famous, sold-out-show-playing musicians of our time.
There’s also an unexpected extended metaphor that arises if you look at this book from a business perspective—I kept reflecting on the corporate belief that the next logical step for the best individual contributors is to step into management, even though this move stops them from contributing their well-honed talents to the organization. What’s wrong with choosing a path that keeps us just outside of the spotlight if it’s the best one suited to us? In Rivera’s case, being a multi-instrumentalist sideman to luminaries like Billy Joel and Ringo Starr—and not being the name in lights himself—was the path where he could be his best.
But I’d like to get away from that perspective for now.
In the end, this is a book about love. And that is exactly what I love about it.
Rivera’s love for music stems from his father’s own openhearted passion: “[My] father would dance around the living room and be unabashedly swept away by the music ... And if it happened to be a piece of music he could sing to, he’d sing like it didn’t matter what anybody else thought.” And reading this, I couldn’t help but think about my own parents. I recently brought a box of books down to my childhood home for them to peruse through, and within minutes, they’d both settled on opposite sides of the couch, already immersed in a new title. I quietly took a picture to remember the moment, thinking, “So that’s where it all comes from.” That I am here, reading and writing about books—it's all me, but it’s also not just me.
Perhaps it’s incorrect to say that we are driven by our loves, but rather, that we are pieces of who we love and who loves us. Every choice we end up making, every passion we end up pursuing, every challenge we face and somehow overcome, every unique way that our heart gets broken and mended again, anything, everything that we do—it all comes from somewhere. Set aside the rock and rollers for a moment, and that’s what Sideman really is: a tribute from a son to his father, a study of how love endures across generations.
Strong Female Character by Fern Brady, Harmony
“But for now I have you. I’ve told you everything—I've spared you nothing because I know that if I’d kept anything back or secret I’d inadvertently be giving the message that it’s shameful. I’m what some people call ‘openly autistic’—a term I’m uncomfortable with because the ‘open’ part suggests it’s odd that I’m not keeping quiet about it but maybe I should. All I can do is keep talking about it and hope you’ll then go and make things feel better for the next autistic or misfit girl you meet.”
I’ve never been officially diagnosed, but I would bet a large sum of money that I have ADHD. Looking back, the signs have always been there. Teachers constantly noted in my report cards that I was bright but disengaged, inexplicably failing to meet my fullest potential. I spent my time in the classroom daydreaming or filling notebook pages with doodles—including one I recently unearthed from my freshman year of high school that stunned me, where I’d spelled out in giant bubble letters, “Sometimes I wonder if I have ADD.”
I had no explanations—I couldn’t make any sense of how my brain worked. Sure, if I had to write a thirty-page term paper the night before it was due, I could skate right through it—and get a better grade than the classmate who’d diligently started two weeks before. But anything else tied to being a “normal” adult seemed to elude me and I felt like a hot mess, struggling with basic tasks that everyone else seemed to have no issue with and feeling depleted and miserable at the end of each day. Because I could excel in other areas of my life, I didn’t think it was something I could ask for help with—I internalized it all as a lack of willpower, an inadequacy I’d always have to overcome. It wasn’t until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all our everyday routines were upended, when everyone had to relearn an entirely different set of societal guidelines, that I suddenly felt... okay. I hadn’t changed much about myself, but the world had changed around me, and in this radically different environment, it was like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders.
Reading books about neurodivergence over the past few years has been an odd experience, yet a major relief. All the things I’ve found strange or broken about myself have explanations and solutions, and I can start building my life in a way that not only accommodates but celebrates how my brain works, rather than trying (and failing) to meet a narrow societal expectation. But why did it have to take this long?
Women have been routinely underdiagnosed with conditions like ADHD and autism because the disorders exist on spectrums, so no two cases are alike to begin with, and how these conditions manifest in childhood for girls doesn’t reflect the more commonly known template of how they manifest in boys. This was comedian Fern Brady’s experience—throughout her life, she found herself suffering from uncontrollable meltdowns and missing social cues that others took for granted, and after reading the DSM-IV as a teenager, the description for autism seemed to explain it all perfectly. But instead of receiving a diagnosis and proper mental health support, Brady was routinely dismissed by doctors who cited things like her ability to make eye contact as definitive proof that she couldn’t be autistic, ignoring all other signs saying otherwise. She was left to attempt to conform to societal standards—going to college, getting an office job, shifting her behavior to appear more neurotypical—but these efforts repeatedly burned her out. It was when she leaned into her neurodivergent traits—and when she finally received an official autism diagnosis—that she began to flourish. The same traits that had long made her feel socially ostracized became the very things that launched her to comedy success when harnessed in the right way and embraced in the right environment.
Strong Female Character is both raucously funny and heartbreaking, deftly researched yet deeply personal. Reading it as a neurodivergent person, I found much-needed solace and felt validated in my experiences. But why I picked this book specifically for the Porchlight Business Book Awards is because this is the kind of book that needs to get in the hands of managers and leaders everywhere. There are plenty of books in the actual business genre making the case about how one-size-fits-all approaches to work aren’t sustainable, but I don’t think change is coming fast enough. While hard facts and research might not always cut through the noise, a good story can.
By seeing the world through Fern Brady’s perspective—and the perspectives of all the other authors in this year’s category—I hope that more leaders take more meaningful steps towards creating environments that let more people flourish as they are.