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Career Success, Personal Growth, Leadership Library

Leadership Library Selection: Born a Crime

Before Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show and had to navigate the obstacles inherent to the entertainment industry, he had a much greater battle to face. In Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, he highlights the struggle of growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa as someone with mixed heritage, a rare occurrence for a country that was still feeling the effects of systemic racism.

The title sounds like one of Noah's jokes as a world-famous comedian, but it was a harsh truth. Because interracial sexual relations were illegal at the time of his birth in South Africa, his birth was literally a crime—with Noah as evidence.


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Because of racial segregation, he lost contact with his father and was raised by his mother, Patricia, a woman who conquered seemingly insurmountable obstacles and taught Noah to do the same. 

His mother learned English, instilling the importance of language, something Noah would take to heart. She also had a strong moral sense, attending three different churches every Sunday—one Black, one white, and one mixed. 

The money she did manage to earn went into educating her son, including encyclopedias, which he was quizzed on. But at first this didn't quite stick, and it seemed Noah was going down the same path of so many other men in his community—that of a life of crime. 

How Language Leads to a Better Life

Noah proved to be adept at pirating music and selling bootleg CDs, and he even burnt down a house at one point. But when things became scary in his years of mischief, he noticed that his proficiency with language—and ability to speak several different languages—had a tendency to keep him out of serious trouble. This was the beginning of him using his voice as a potential career path

Communication is such an essential leadership and life-skill. Great communication opens doors in life and in your career. Noah's story is a great example of that and the power of language. 

He navigated post-Apartheid South Africa with a quick tongue and a comedic bent. To find comedy in a tough spot—particularly Soweto, a town outside Johannesburg where a million Black people were relegated—is a testament to his positive disposition. So many stories we see of successful leaders overcoming obstacles rest on the idea of keeping a positive mindset

He leveraged this positivity and confidence into DJing, eventually leaving home to pursue his dreams. But adversity travels far, and his mother continued to struggle. Her ex-husband abused her, and eventually shot her twice—including in the back of the head—though she remarkably survived. To show just how bad the system still was in South Africa, her ex wasn't even sent to prison. 

Noah had his work cut out for him in the notoriously cutthroat world of show business, but he had already faced much worse.

Key Takeaways: Born a Crime

In his book, Noah writes about: 

  • The importance of effective communication skills
  • What he learned from a short stint in prison
  • Staying positive in the face of systemic racism and violence
  • Overcoming an identity crisis to find his true self
  • Rising out of poverty to achieve goals
  • The indelible lessons he learned from his mother

Read Trevor Noah's Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and see how he climbed out of a tough situation to not only bring us the news, but make us laugh.