Celebrating Women’s History Month
Finding Role Models, Inspiration and Insights in Memoirs

Finding Role Models, Inspiration and Insights in MemoirsFemale role models can help you expand your sense of what’s possible in your career and life, inspire you to aim higher and suggest behaviors you might want to emulate, or even avoid. But those role models don’t always have to be in-the-flesh women you know or work with.

In reading memoirs like Michelle Obama’s Becoming or Wild by Cheryl Strayed, you can also gain access to examples, insights and inspiration from real women doing hard things. And you don’t even have to invite them for coffee.

Unique perspectives, universal inspiration

While many women, and perhaps especially entrepreneurs, may lack sufficient role models within their direct work environments, memoirs by other successful women can help fill the gap with a huge range of people to learn from and inspire you. Cognitive science shows too that the neural mechanisms the brain triggers when reading about emotions through the mind of a character or author closely mirror those triggered by real life experiences. So, you can actually experience some of what the author has experienced.

A memoir is a unique type of non-fiction that is understood to reflect the particular (as well as possibly slanted, foggy and skewed) memories and perspectives of its author. Although they can be chronological or focus on the facts of a person’s life (like an autobiography), the point is more to reflect on specific experiences and how they changed the author, or what she learned from the path she has traveled. Hearing successful women tell their authentic stories can be hugely empowering for women at all stages of their careers.

You are probably not a poet and young mother from Bangladesh preparing to leave an abusive marriage while founding an arts program in a military hospital. Yet, you might relate to author Seema Reza in When the World Breaks Open as she struggles to find her own voice and follow her own desires despite being barraged with conflicting societal messages about how to be a good wife and mother.

You also have likely never been First Lady of the United States. Still, reading about how Michelle Obama decided to stretch higher than she thought she could reach, learned how to question authority and got over the need to appear as if she had everything under control might resonate with issues you face in your own life.

Memoirs as a development tool

A well-written memoir will capture and hold your attention and you will be anxious to get back to it to see what the author has been up to while you were away. Within that enjoyable process, however, you will be learning and changing. Just some of the benefits of reading memoirs include:

Feeling inspired. Reading about fictional characters who overcome great challenges is one thing; reading about real women who have done it can inspire you to keep on keeping on.

Learning. Choosing memoirs by successful women can help you learn new leadership strategies and how and when to apply them effectively. It can also help you learn more about specific professions, building a business, or how to navigate particular challenges. You can even gain specific skills by reading about women who lead in an area where you also work or want to transition into.

Building empathy. Sometimes, it’s possible to open yourself up to a stranger’s experiences more readily than to those of the people closest to you, or even to yourself. Reading about someone at arm’s length can enable you to let your defenses down long enough for new ideas to make it through your filters.

Gain greater context. Memoirs set in different time periods or settings can expand your understanding of how events have unfolded or help you see parallels to an experience you’re having today. Memoirs by women leaders in your own field can also provide critical context around similar issues you may be facing.

What to read next

According to figures from the U.S. book publishing industry, nearly a third of all readers prefer to read biographies and memoirs so there are many to choose from both historically and being published today. Inc. Magazine, The New York Times and others suggest a wide range of memoirs to inspire women entrepreneurs and those building their careers within organizations. What powerful memoirs would you add to this list?

  • Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser
  • From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
  • My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  • The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates
  • The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levey
  • The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison
  • Thrive by Arianna Huffington
  • Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
  • In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists and Entrepreneurs by Grace Bonney