Ten Books That Changed My Life #4: Titan

Ron Chernow
Changed my life in January 1997

During my first semester in college, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Even worse, I felt completely as if I didn’t belong there. I grew up rather poor, no one in my family had ever attended college beyond a semester at a local community college, and I was only there due to a scholarship that I didn’t feel as though I’d earned. Basically, I felt like I didn’t belong there and as though I didn’t belong there.

The problem was that I had no real role model, no one tangible with a background like mine that I could clearly understand how they went from nothing to something. I had a sense that I had something greater inside of me, something more than just going to college and then going back home and becoming a park ranger (which is what I was planning on doing at that point), but I couldn’t see how that transition happened.

I never had a problem seeing a long term goal with my life, but before I read Titan, I felt aimless, almost like I was waiting for something to happen, that someone or something had to rescue me from who I was.

Then I read Titan, and for the first time in my life I felt like I had some sort of purpose.

What’s it about?

Titan is a biography of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. Wikipedia covers the highlights of Rockefeller’s life quite well and these events are covered in detail in the book.

If Titan were just an ordinary biography, however, it wouldn’t have stood out in my mind like a beacon. The real power of Titan lies in the way that it lays out Rockefeller’s growth from rather ordinary circumstances to the unparalleled levels of success that he found later in life, even down to the specific mechanics he used to organize his life and motivate himself. Although I had avidly read countless biographies before this, almost all of them related the person’s childhood in very broad strokes and didn’t connect their early lives to their later successes (there are some, but I hadn’t read them yet).

This is a book about work ethic, about taking what you have and making something out of it without anyone else’s help. It made me realize that I was just sitting around feeling sorry for myself and it changed my life’s path forever.

How did Titan shape the person I became?

It made me realize I wasn’t alone in starting off with nothing. I was surrounded by people who grew up never wanting for anything. Many of them had attended private schools and they had everything they could possibly want or need to help them to succeed. I was literally the only resident in my dormitory without a personal computer, for example, because I came from a background that couldn’t afford one, so I had to do much of my work in the public labs on the far side of campus. I felt like I was the only person in the world who came from a poor background – this book made me not feel alone.

It made me see I already had all the tools I needed to succeed. Everything I needed I already had: a work ethic, a desire to learn, and a sharp mind. I didn’t really need anything else.

It made me broaden my horizons. Before I read this book, I wanted to be a park ranger. It was something familiar, something safe. I grew up near a state park where the ranger was quite old and I visualized replacing him. It wasn’t long after I closed the book that I realized that it was up to me to define my own destiny, and that destiny could be pretty much anything I wanted.

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