CEO biographies are almost uniformly terrible. The “uniformly” matters because it means you can’t even rely on different ones being interestingly terrible. They all tend to be ghost-written homages to the author’s toughness. Whatever lessons are shared are cliches. These cliches may even be true in some cases, but the author has only lived one life. Who knows if the same will work for you?
But there’s an exception. It’s a biography written by one CEO, and it’s heartfelt. He tells his story plainly and honestly. It’s a memoir, not a guidebook. And for that, it shines still in my memory even though it’s been twelve years since I read it.
Swimming Across by Andrew S. Grove is a great book. Everyone can read it. It has nothing to do with founding Intel and everything to do with a mother and her young son escaping Hungary as the Nazis took over their country and home. It’s thrilling and terrifying. Though Intel is hardly mentioned, my mind did the job of hanging the fate of the company in the balance. It’s a great example of how knowing the end to a story can actually enhance dramatic tension.
I don’t know or care whether Swimming Across is great literature or not. It is too compelling a story to worry about such matters. The book occupies a strange place in the marketplace of ideas. It engages in self-disclosure ordinarily only found in fiction. Indeed, when reading, one almost has to remind oneself that everything written actually happened, and indeed happened to the author.
I’m not surprised the book didn’t do better. The people who cared about Andrew Grove cared about Intel. They wanted Only the Paranoid Survive and High Output Management. If Swimming Across taught anything about Intel, its lessons were far too subtle for me to comprehend.
Swimming Across ought to have been labeled a classic. It deserves a review written by a better writer than me. It deserved to be brought up in the refugee debate. I hope for the Littlest Bath to read it alongside Anne Frank to see how capriciously tragedy visited one but not the other.
Ultimately, though, we always knew we would end here. Andrew Grove died yesterday, possibly from Parkinson’s disease. I thank him for his gifts to us.