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The one habit that powers Bill Gates’ and Elon Musk’s success

·7-min read
These two billionaires share one thing in common. (Source: Getty)
These two billionaires share one thing in common. (Source: Getty)

There’s one common theme that unites Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who have been hustling for the top position as the world’s richest person in recent months. Just like it also unites Bill Gates.

And that is books.

In Bezos’ case, it’s not just that he founded Amazon, initially as an online bookstore back in 1995, Nor that he was married to a novelist, Mackenzie Scott.

But also that he’s continued with a lifelong habit of reading, one that at some point inspired him to recreate the browsing of book stores online. He particularly loves novels, especially science fiction, and has said he learns more from novels than non fiction.

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In Brad Stone’s comprehensive book on how Amazon was built, he described books as “having nurtured Amazon since its creation and shaped its culture and strategy.”

Musk devoured books from a young age, reportedly reading for up to ten hours a day, reading whatever he could get his hands on including the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He once said “I read books” in response to questions on how he got his ideas to build rockets.

We’ve heard the stories of other uber-successful readers, including Warren Buffet who at one point suggested anyone looking to follow his path to success read “500 pages a day”.

Bill Gates who also reads for hours a day, and says he read a “tonne” of science fiction especially as a child (but mostly reads non fiction now).

And of course Oprah Winfrey, who has over the years inspired so many with her book recommendations and personally transformed the careers of authors.

Why is reading so important?

Reading is essential to creativity and innovation, and for learning from the outcomes of history.

It’s an opportunity to open your imagination to other possibilities – which really is the process behind entrepreneurship.

It can provide characters and ideas – both fiction and non fiction – that are motivating and inspiring, role models and mentors that you can’t access in the out-of-book world.

And books offer a place to expand your knowledge, your language and your ability to concentrate and focus.

Not to mention the joy and pleasure that comes from simply reading, a break from the pressures of life and an opportunity to engage in something out of your world.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, behind a pile of books, holds up Bookshelf, a new compact disc for computers which holds all the information contained in the books pictured.  (Photo by Doug Wilson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Microsoft's Bill Gates has cultivated a reading habit for years. (Photo by Doug Wilson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

In so many cases it’s reading that has not only provided direct ideas and inspiration to some of the products and services that entrepreneurs have built, but also the knowledge and discipline they need to make it happen.

Some books have the answers, others simply provide the space for creativity and inspiration that can help such answers evolve.

Now with all these books read, and all those billionaires with billions to spend, let’s hope they can find the inspiration to use their billions, alongside their power, for good.

So how do you start a reading habit?

Start with recommendation lists. If there are key entrepreneurs or leaders who inspire you, or that you’d simply like to learn more about, then check out what they have recommended over the years. Sites like Most Recommended Books curate these recommendations into lists.

Key business-relevant books (including fiction) recommended by entrepreneurs

  • Business Adventures by John Brooks, which Bill Gates describes as the “best business book I’ve ever read”, and notes that Warren Buffett loaned him his copy.

  • Trailblazer, by Mark Benioff, recommended by Susan Wojcicki, who says “Marc explores how companies can nurture a value-based culture to become powerful platforms for change.” Also recommended by Richard Branson as an “urgent and compelling book” for anyone in business with a higher purpose.

  • Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, recommended by Melinda Gates as one of her top books.

  • Built to Last, by Jim Collins and described by Bezos as “my favourite business book”.

  • Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. This is science fiction, but has provided plenty of inspiration for entrepreneurs, described by Elon Musk as “fundamental to the creation of SpaceX”.

  • Anything by Iain M. Banks. The science fiction author has massive fans in Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

  • Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, a fictional novel sharing great lessons on life after the 2008 financial collapse. This one was recommended by Oprah Winfrey, and includes a key character who is a driver to a partner at Lehman Brothers.

Read what you love

Take inspiration from others, but don’t force yourself to read books that wouldn’t otherwise interest you.

The key step to developing a habit is to love reading, so find books that you love. Read within a genre that you enjoy, that inspires you and keeps you turning the pages.

This will help engrain the habit and improve your concentration, ultimately enhancing your abilities to move fast across the page -- and then leading you to discover other genres.

Make reading a downtime default

Find the time for reading when you can read, and have handy whatever you need to make it possible. We can’t all carve out an intentional 30 minutes a day for reading – or hours, as Warren Buffet does.

But you can make reading your default for downtime as it comes up: be that on public transport, just before bed, over lunch, while waiting for a meeting or something else.

Make reading something you do in your downtime. <em>(Source: Getty)</em>
Make reading something you do in your downtime. (Source: Getty)

Clearly, this only works if you have ready access to something to read – so keep a book handy. Or better yet, use a device (or the reading app on your phone, if that works for you) so you always have a huge library of options available.

If you do want to read Bill Gates style, then you might want to stick with physical books and find intentional reading time. Gates said back in 2017 that while he “should go digital some time” he still takes a traditional approach, especially as he likes to write notes in the margins.

Find a book club or community

There’s great motivation in the deadline for reading that a book club can create. Such clubs can easily see you reading an additional book a month, and expanding out your book choices – given you’re often relying on the choices of others.

You can tailor a book club to your needs, developing one that’s fiction based, or political, or business based or something else. You can create these even among just two to three people. Or you can join one of the endless book club communities (both paid and unpaid) available online.

Keep a list of book suggestions handy

There’s no shortage of book suggestions that come up during a day: from friends, on social media or across articles online. Make a point of making notes about those that interest you, somewhere simple, like on the notes app on your phone.

It’s okay to not finish a book

Bill Gates claims to always finish a book that he starts, telling TIME that: “I refuse to stop reading a book in the middle, even if I don’t like it. And the more I dislike a book, the more time I take to write margin notes.”

Gates will also go and widely explore a topic area, if he’s struggling with making sense of a book.

Plenty of people live by this always-finish-the-book mantra. But if you’re looking to make reading a habit, then remember you can ignore this advice.

If you’re not enjoying it, if you’re not getting anything from it, if it’s not necessary to your work or study, then stop reading the book and go for something else. Reading is supposed to be inspiring, interesting and enjoyable. Not a chore.

Angela Priestley is a Yahoo Finance contributor, writing on family finances and juggling work with kids. She is the founding editor of Women’s Agenda, co-founder of Agenda Media and a mum of three young boys.

This is part 13 of our Jobs 2021 series, where Yahoo Finance is exploring how to succeed in the next decade: earn more, lead better and win in the next decade of work.

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