An autobiography, most often published as a book, is the story of someone's life written by that actual person themselves. Their life stories can be ones of struggle and hardship, but also of triumph and resilience. Here follow several examples of inspiring autobiographies worth reading, plus a sample short autobiography essay, to perhaps prompt you to write your own story.
Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz
Mass advertising can help build brands, but authenticity is what makes them last. If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.
When Starbucks first opened its doors in Seattle in the early 1970s, the idea of a premium coffee experience in America was unheard of. Today, you'll find over 25,000 Starbucks locations in nearly 80 countries and territories around the world. In Pour Your Heart Into It, now-former CEO Howard Schultz discusses his experience in growing the company and shaping the broader coffee culture into what it is today.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
I told myself, Malala, you have already faced death. This is your second life. Don't be afraid - if you are afraid, you can't move forward.
Malala Yousafzai nearly died when she was shot by a member of the Taliban in 2012. She was targeted for her activism, fighting for a girl's right to a good education. This is the story of I Am Malala. The advocate from Pakistan went on to co-found the Malala Fund and receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest recipient ever.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
I've long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we're talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime "associates," food, for me, has always been an adventure.
The late Anthony Bourdain is remembered best for his travel TV shows, but he worked in the restaurant business for a number of years, running some of the top kitchens in New York City. Kitchen Confidential, where he invites us into the secret society of chefs, was really his big break and how he stepped into the mainstream limelight. It's a masterful work in what to include in a biography and how to stay true to your own voice in an autobiography.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
For anyone paying attention in 1990, the release of Nelson Mandela from jail in South Africa was momentous news. He was seen as a terrorist under apartheid rule. In the autobiographical Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recounts his life from early childhood through his nearly three decades in prison. The book was first published in 1994, the same year Mandela became President of South Africa.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
Today, Trevor Noah hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. As a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, Noah was literally "born a crime." His father is white, of Swiss German heritage. His mother is black, of Xhosa ancestry. Their interracial relationship was illegal at the time of his birth. In Born a Crime, Noah discusses what it was like growing up in Johannesburg, navigating cultural clashes and violent neighborhoods.
M Train by Patti Smith
I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond.
An accomplished American singer-songwriter and poet, Patti Smith recounts her days living in New York City in M Train. It is her second memoir, having already explored her early life and career in Just Kids. Here, we follow Smith as she undergoes hardship and despair, rising above with hope and possibility.
Not Yet by Wayson Choy
Now, in my sixties, and believing that I looked at least ten years younger, I had my mantra: whenever I coughed suddenly, coarsely, I told anyone nearby, "Sorry. Allergies."
When you consider most inspiring autobiographies that you find on lists like these, they oftentimes focus on the author's early days and how they rose above adversity to achieve something greater. Wayson Choy's Not Yet is a different kind of story, as it tackles more of the questions toward the end of one's life.
In particular, Choy recounts two times that he almost died, and how they helped him discover reasons for living. Not Yet is about deciding that it's not yet your time, embracing the love for life and family.
This Is Happy by Camilla Gibb
If someone eliminates the obstacles you believe to be in front of you, then you have no choice but to try. Fail spectacularly, if you will, but try.
Life is rarely so simple. It's hardly ever all bad or all good. This notion is captured beautifully by Camilla Gibb in This Is Happy. Her marriage ended just before the birth of her child, filling her life with a complex mix of emotions. It's ultimately an uplifting tale that reminds us to focus on the positive, find the support we need, and keep moving forward.
Example of an Original Autobiography
Your teacher may assign a student autobiography as a writing exercise. While you certainly won't be expected to produce a book of 300 pages or more, your autobiography essay should still provide enough of an interesting story arc to captivate your audience.
How do I start an autobiography about myself? The approach is similar to writing a personal narrative essay. Be specific, use vivid imagery, and strive to evoke an emotional response. Consider this short example, which would be suitable with the context of a larger autobiography of a professional writer:
I've always enjoyed the written word, even if it wasn't exactly "cool" to spend the entirety of your Saturday afternoons curled up in a tiny public library. Digital catalogs, accessed through the public computers with their green text on black background displays, were a relatively new addition. Sure beat thumbing through those card files, that's for sure. Though, I do miss the odd musky smell of faded index cards sometimes. It's weird.
As a kid, I was drawn to Choose Your Own Adventure and dinosaur books. Then, Jurassic Park came out in theaters in 1993. I was compelled to read the book, because I needed more. So, much more. And so began my deep dive into everything written by Michael Crichton. By taking the reality of scientific knowledge, and just nudging it a couple spaces forward with a dash of creative fiction, Crichton created worlds that I never thought possible. Ones with ultra intelligent apes or scientists trapped in ocean-bound dwellings. I owe, in no small part, my career as a writer today to the work of Michael Crichton.
In a way that didn't make much sense to me then, nor does it make much sense to me today, this desire for sci-fi stories that were intimately human and yet larger than life led to a love of Shakespeare too. In high school literature class, Mr. Zagoupolous said we must memorize and perform a soliloquy or a speech from a Shakespearean play of our choice. I opted for Marc Antony's speech following the death of Julius Caesar.
"O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth," it begins. It's powerfully moving, with clever wordplay that I could only hope to achieve one day. "That I am meek and gentle with these butchers," it continues. It's the kind of speech that rouses even the meekest among us into action. "Blood and destruction shall be so in use," it goes on, "and dreadful objects so familiar that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infants quartered with the hands of war." Oh my.
Thankfully, the day never came where we actually had to perform the speech. I guess Mr. Zag, as we called him, just forgot. But, I remember. I remember even today, some 25 years later.
Write Your Own Story
The only real difference between an autobiography and a biography is the author. Biographies are written by other people and may draw from additional source material, whereas autobiographies are written purely from the author's own perspective.
For a more succinct approach to telling someone's life story, refer to our tips on writing a biographical sketch. You can even write a biosketch about yourself! It's like a short autobiography essay.