Bill Gates is at it again. He’s indulging in one of his favorite habits: reading. Gates recently wrote a blog post titled, “5 amazing books I read this year.” The post is in addition to regular book reviews Gates posts all year long. “Reading is my favorite way to indulge my curiosity,” Gates writes. “Although I’m lucky that I get to meet with a lot of interesting people and visit fascinating places through my work, I still think books are the best way to explore new topics that interest you.
According to Pew Research, the typical American reads about four books a year. Fully one-quarter of Americans surveyed hadn’t read even one book. Successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates are not average, or even above-average which, according to the Pew Research, means a person reads up to 17 books a year. No, Bill Gates is off the chart. Gates reads 50 books a year, or about one book per week.
Earlier this year Gates told TIME magazine that reading books for over an hour a day was a critical ingredient of his success. “Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently,” Gates says. “Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career.”
Bill Gates isn’t alone. Elon Musk, Mark Cuban, Mark Zuckerberg, and other billionaires have long promoted the habit of reading as a key component to becoming a successful entrepreneur for three reasons:
1. Books offer perspective.
In the TIME magazine article, Bill Gates cites Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature as the one book that has most influenced his philanthropy. It did so by giving Gates a different perspective:
“It changed the way I think about the world. [Pinker] argues that violence in human society is decreasing at a rapid rate, and our tolerance of violence is decreasing even faster. The idea at the center of his book–that the world is getting better in lots of ways–is part of the motivation for the work Melinda and I do with our foundation.”
It’s easy to lose perspective when the media or your friends bombard your social media feeds with the issue of the hour. It becomes harder to stand back and see the world in a historical perspective or to understand broader trends.
There’s a reason why Bill Gates–and his best friend Warren Buffett–call themselves optimists, despite the barrage of bad news we hear every day. Books give leaders a broader view.
2. Books stir the imagination.
When Elon Musk was asked how he learned to build rockets, he said, “Simple. I read books.” But Musk’s interest goes beyond rocket science.
Science fiction and fantasy were his books of choice when Musk was young. One book in particular, The Lord of the Rings, “shaped his vision to save the world.”
In a lengthy profile in The New Yorker, Musk revealed that he was picked on as a kid. As a lonely boy he retreated into the world of fantasy and science fiction. “The heroes of the books I read, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the ‘Foundation’ series, always felt a duty to save the world,” Musk told the reporter.
Our brains are wired for story. Stories of heroes (real-life and fictional) inspire us to dream bigger and reach higher.
3. Books build better communicators.
Ajit Singh is a venture capitalist and professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Singh says he reads 50 to 60 books a year–once again, far above average–according to a Fast Company article last year.
The biggest benefit, he says, is helping him to improve his communication skills. According to Singh, “Leadership requires storytelling; The story can be the vision of the company, or an acquisition plan, or an impending layoff. Telling a compelling story and listening with empathy have contributed much to my skills as a leader.”
Singh’s observation confirms what researchers are finding in the lab. In 2009, Carnegie Mellon scientists discovered that reading actually rewires the brain.
Writing in the journal Neuron, the scientists found that reading increased the quality of white matter, the brain tissue that carries signals between areas of gray matter, where information is processed. By improving the “integrity” of the white matter, subjects were able to communicate better and express their ideas with more eloquence.
Accomplished entrepreneurs and business leaders are giving the same advice over and over: Read more books than average and you’ll be more successful than average. If success leaves clues, billionaires like Bill Gates and the others are giving us a pretty big hint.