Read Like Bill Gates

Saturday, July 15, 2017

‘I really had a lot of dreams when I was a kid, and I think a great deal of that grew out of the fact that I had a chance to read a lot.’
BILL GATES

There is a commonly voiced, though widely disputed, fear that those generations brought up with personal computers and all the distractions they offer have turned their backs on traditional pastimes such as reading. Hearteningly, though, Gates is a prodigious consumer of literature of all types. On his personal blog (www.gatesnotes.com), he devotes a great deal of space to logging his own reading, often accompanied by insightful reviews. In recent times he has also issued at least one list of book recommendations a year.
His passion for reading started early, as he revealed to Janet Lowe in 1998 for her book Bill Gates Speaks: ‘Growing up, my parents always encouraged us to read a lot and think for ourselves. They included us in discussions on everything from books to politics.’ He eagerly consumed the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a boy, and also set himself the task of wading through the World Book Encyclopedia, which ran to twenty volumes at the time. He gobbled up biographies too, exploring the lives of such notables as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Napoleon Bonaparte. Meanwhile, as a child brought up with the moon landings and with a natural scientific bent anyway, he unsurprisingly developed a taste for popular science writing – both fiction and factual.
The reading bug never left him. Throughout his adulthood he has striven to give an hour a day over to it, and more at weekends. Nor does he restrict himself only to books, but reads a newspaper every day and several magazines each week, on the basis that they keep him informed on a broad spectrum of subjects from current affairs to the latest computing technology. Furthermore, in one of his columns for The New York Times back in 1996, he spoke of the ‘think weeks’ he takes a couple of times each year. During these breaks he stocks up on books ‘and other materials my colleagues believe I should see to stay up to date’, using the time to re-energize and re-evaluate.
His choice of books can best be described as eclectic. In his own words: ‘I read a lot, but I don’t always choose what’s on the bestseller list.’ While he is by no means averse to fiction (Graeme Simsion’s smash hit The Rosie Project made it onto his bookshelf on his wife’s recommendation), most of what he reads is non-fiction because ‘I always want to learn more about how the world works’. In an admission that must lift the souls of parents and teachers everywhere, Gates attests that it is through reading that he best learns.
As well as seeking out titles that teach him something new, he is drawn by gripping stories, especially those centered around human ingenuity. In 2013, for instance, he highly praised Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. It is not, perhaps, a title that would win everyone over, but Gates loved it for the remarkable light it sheds on globalization, business and philanthropy.
Many of his book choices reflect his passion for addressing the great problems and crises that the world faces. So, for instance, he has read titles as disparate as Paul Farmer’s To Repair the World, the hugely apt How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place (a collection of essays edited by Bjørn Lomborg on the ten biggest challenges facing the planet today), Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Superfreakonomics (according to Gates: ‘One of my favorite things in the book is the debunking of many of the studies economists have done that they use as the basis for claiming that people are irrational in their choices.’), Leon Hesser’s The Man Who Fed the World (a biography of Nobel Peace laureate and agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug) and Katherine Boo’s heart-rending study of modern Indian slum life, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
A man renowned for his ability to rapidly self-educate on subjects that fascinate him, he also has a taste for raw science. An all-time favorite is Surely You’re Joking, My Feynman!, an account of some of the exploits of Gates’s beloved Nobel Prizewinning scientist, Richard Feynman, including his encounters with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. The mid-seventies classic The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins also had a profound influence on him in its investigation of human evolution. Of particular relevance to Gates as he first got to grips with coding was the epic The Art of Computer Programming by Stanford professor emeritus Donald Knuth. Extending over several volumes, it is a notoriously dense work to get through and Gates read it over a period of months in twenty-page chunks. Writing in The New York Times in 1995, he said, ‘If somebody is so brash that they think they know everything, Knuth will help them understand that the world is deep and complicated.’
Meanwhile, we know that in more recent times Gates’s scientific reading has included both Weather for Dummies and Physics for Dummies, as well as Walter Gratzer’s hard-core Giant Molecules: From Nylon to Nanotubes and Karl Sabbagh’s The Hair of the Dog and Other Scientific Surprises. And among the popular biographies he has consumed is Walter Isaacson’s profile of Steve Jobs, while Gates’s love of tennis is reflected in his choices of Pete Sampras: A Champion’s Mind and Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open.
In an interview with Achievment.org in 2010, he revealed his love of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, which he described as ‘phenomenal’. Published in 1959, it is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Continuing the theme of American classics, he is a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He even has the following words from the end of the novel inscribed on the domed ceiling of his personal library (which is replete with at least 14,000 titles and two secret book cases): ‘He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.’
Ever the ‘do-er’, Gates has not been content to be a mere reader either, but long ago became an author, too. His first work, The Road Ahead, was co-written with Nathan Myhrvold and journalist Peter Rinearson. An analysis of the rise of the personal computer and a rumination on the internet revolution then in its infancy, it was a bestseller for which publishers Penguin reportedly paid an advance of some $2.5 million. Gates set aside about four months for the writing process, which he found to be a genuine challenge that required him to focus on his thought processes and refine his conclusions. ‘My admiration for people who write books has increased now that I’ve done one myself,’ he would later say. Writers the world over gracefully accepted the compliment even as they dreamed of an advance amounting to just a small proportion of that which Gates had commanded. Undeterred by his first experience as an author, he wrote a second well-received book, Business @ the Speed of Thought, in 1999, looking at the relationship between commerce and technology.
A NOVEL PERSPECTIVE
The novel Gates most admires is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the 1951 tale of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield that is now regarded as one of the great American literary works. Gates commented, ‘I didn’t actually read The Catcher in the Rye until I was thirteen, and ever since then I’ve said that’s my favorite book. It’s very clever. It acknowledges that young people are a little confused, but can be smart about things and see things that adults don’t really see.’ Looking at things differently was certainly a trait Gates had shown growing up, something that he carried into adulthood and can best be seen in the way he attacked the early computer software market.

All of which should go to allay the fears of those suspicious that computers and books can happily co-exist in a post-Microsoft universe. It is true that some of his innovations have helped birth generations filled with individuals happier to stare at a screen lost in a gritty urban shoot-’em-up or pretending to be a star exponent of a sport they have never mastered in real life, but Gates himself could not personally do more to promote the value of reading. However, even he – the owner of a spectacularly beautiful traditional library, remember – concedes that time might be running out for the visceral delight of holding a physical book in one’s hands. ‘Digital reading will completely take over,’ he said in 2011. ‘It’s lightweight and it’s fantastic for sharing. Over time it will take over.’

This articles is an excerpt from a book called "How to think like Bill Gates" by Daniel Smith
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