How to Become A Learning Machine: the Power of Reading

Imagine this: just as you are drifting off to sleep one night, you sense a soft voice speaking behind you. “Hello, young man,” the voice says. “My name is Warren. Perhaps you know of me as Warren Buffett. I am here to give you a special gift. I am going to teach you all the wisdom life has given me about being successful, being rich, and most importantly, being a good human being. All you have to do is listen.”

Wouldn’t that be miraculous? A free lesson, only for you, from one of the world’s greatest minds. What if one by one other great mind began to speak to you whenever you had some time to spare and share their secrets of success with you? Imagine Sachin Tendulkar teaching you the ins and outs of cricket — or Bollywood’s Big B, Amitabh Bachchan guiding you step by step to develop your acting skills; or learning martial arts from the legendary Bruce Lee. What about learning chess from the grandmaster Viswanathan Anand?

Of course this is not a fantasy. By just taking a few determined steps, you can actually make this happen in your life by cultivating just one new habit — reading books. When you bring the habit of reading into your life, the world’s most inspiring and legendary human beings literally become your life coaches.

This chapter is your guide to how to make reading your most cherished and regular habit.

Let us start with two questions:

How many books do you think the average human being reads in a year?

How many books do you think the average multi-millionaire reads in a year?

The answers might surprise you. The average person reads 1.5 books a year. You might think that super-successful people, with so much more on their plates than mere mortals, would find even less time to read. But the most successful, wealthiest people in the world somehow manage to read an average of 50 books every year.

Great minds read great books

The world’s third wealthiest man, Warren Buffett, estimates that he spends 80% of his working day reading and thinking. Asked about the key to his success, the billionaire investor Warren Buffett replied, “Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”

He used to read 600 to 1,000 pages daily when beginning his career as an investor. He still allots about 80% of his day to reading. It’s no coincidence that Buffet’s bank account is as robust as his reading habit.

Charlie Munger, childhood friend and lifelong business partner of Warren Buffett, says, “Warren and I do more reading and thinking and less doing than most people in business,” says Munger. “But we’ve turned that quirk into a positive outcome for ourselves.”

Munger believes that his simple habit is the secret of his wisdom and success. “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.”

In 2007, 84 year-old Munger revealed the secret of success to a crowd of aspiring law students: “I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up.”

They are not the exceptions. When Elon Musk was asked how he learned to build rockets, he said, “I read books.” His father Errol Musk says, “So where a lot of people would go to a party and drink and talk about rugby or sport, Elon would have found the person’s library and be going through his books.”

TV host Oprah Winfrey, who has probably done more to promote the joy of reading than anyone else, says, “I love being surrounded by books. For me, they’re like art, little pieces of sculpture placed all over the house, reminding me, always, of the power of the written word. Just looking at them brings me the purest kind of joy.”

Mark Cuban, the billionaire who famously sold the video portal for $5.6 billion to Yahoo in 1999, reads 3 hours a day, or 1,000 hours a year. Assuming an average book takes five hours to read, Cuban is reading about 200 books a year.

Motivational self-help guru Tony Robbins grew up with an alcoholic mother and an abusive father and step-fathers. He attributes books to saving his life and shaping him into the leader he is today.

“I took a speed-reading course and read 700 books in seven years — on psychology, physiology, anything that could make a difference in life.”

The billionaire whisperer

When Steve Siebold was a broke college student, his quest to become rich began with one interview — with a millionaire, he told US News & World Report. Since then, he’s interviewed more than 1,200 of the world’s wealthiest people over the past three decades and become a self-made millionaire himself.

In his research, he noticed a pastime the rich have in common: They self-educate by reading.

“Walk into a wealthy person’s home and one of the first things you’ll see is an extensive library of books they’ve used to educate themselves on how to become more successful,” Siebold writes. “The middle class reads novels, tabloids, and entertainment magazines.”

In fact, there is a notable difference between the reading habits of the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy. According to Tom Corley, author of Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals, rich people (those with an annual income of $160,000 or more and a liquid net worth of $3.2 million-plus) read for self-improvement, education, and success. Meanwhile, poor people (those with an annual income of $35,000 or less and a liquid net worth of $5,000 or less) read primarily to be entertained.

Successful people tend to choose educational books and publications over novels, tabloids, and magazines. And in particular, they obsess over biographies and autobiographies of other successful people for guidance and inspiration.

The benefits of reading

When you read, your brain grows in real time, sprouting new neural connections and pathways. Reading literally rewires your brain while you read, because it simultaneously engages several areas of the brain, including visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and much more. In fact, reading about an event stimulates the same areas of the brain as actually experiencing it. Unlike couch-surfing TV channels or browsing the Internet, reading gives the brain more time to stop, think, process and imagine, according to research at Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word.

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence — the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns — but also with comprehension and emotional intelligence. Psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York, have shown that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, so vital in complex social interactions and networking.

Reading for as little as six minutes a day has been shown to measurably reduce stress while reading just a little longer improves concentration.

How to read like Bill Gates

You can learn much about reading from the founder and visionary behind one of the world’s largest and best-known digital empires, millionaire-millionaire-philanthropy Bill Gates says he still prefers to read books the old-fashioned way. A bag full of books follows him around wherever he goes, and he reads about 50 books every year. That’s about a book per week.

He takes them seriously, carrying pencils and scribbling notes along the margins. He follows a rule of never starting a book he won’t finish, which makes him choose carefully. He advises people to set aside at least an hour for reading every day, and not let anything interrupt that hour.

His father, in a Forbes magazine interview, called his son a bookworm.

“Just about every kind of book interested him – encyclopaedias, science fiction, you name it. I was thrilled that my child was such an avid reader, but he read so much that his mother and I had to institute a rule: no books at the dinner table.”

Gates shares the golden rules that have helped him making reading one of his powerful habits.

1. Block an Hour to Read

Gates says that if you really want to read a lot and get the most from it, block off at least an hour each day to reading. Time-blocking is one of the most powerful productivity techniques that anyone can use to get things done.

2. Don’t Start What You Can’t Finish

Gates never starts book he can’t finish. This principle may be a little difficult to grasp, but when you keep starting things that never get finished, this can sometimes develop in your character and will show up as a real life flaw.

3. Read physical books, not eBooks

Gates says that one day he will make the switch from reading printed books to digital books but for now he just prefer paper he can touch and hold.

Of course, you can choose to read a physical book or an eBook, whichever works best for you. The important thing is to make reading enjoyable so that you will do more of it.

Gates says that when you invest attention into thinking and relating what you have read with your life, the value of the book increases significantly.

4. Take margin notes

According to Gates, in order to get the most out of the book while you are reading, you must take notes in margins, often to write down ideas that he finds interesting. Taking notes reinforces the ideas in your mind, helping you remember them better.

Follow the Rule of 25

How can you read more of the right kind of books to prepare your mind with the questions and tools for success?

I formulated what I call the Rule of 25 from my own experiences with books. It is easy to understand and if implemented diligently, it could greatly enhance both the quantity and quality of your reading. If you were to ask a chartered accountant, a doctor or a lawyer what kind of books they read, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they read books on finance, law or medicine. Professionals read to keep themselves updated.

The first part of the Rule of 25 says that a quarter of the books you read should be on your chosen domain of expertise. These books that will sharpen your professional edge. For examples, a salesman should read books on salesmanship and sales, a small-business owner should read books on growing small businesses, brand building, effective advertisement, human resource management, sales and enhancing the customer experience. Similarly, a lawyers, should read law books, the latest judgements and so on. A Chartered accountant should read books on accounting, and keep up with the latest tax updates and financial trends.

Another 25% of your reading should be focused on self-help and personal development. These would include books that inspire you to be better, live better, sharpen your values and thinking skills and improve your health and intelligence. For examples books on cultivating a winner’s mindset, habit forming, productivity, positive thinking, improving confidence level, body language, the power of gratitude, optimizing health, meditation, yoga, and improving relationships and wellbeing. Read books that align with your vision, mission, action plan and the 11 types of goals you have.

A further 25% should focus on what I call the breakfast of champions — biographies. Books about the lives of great people, such as legends, presidents, billionaires, scientist, philosophers and reformers, have the power to inspire us, make us think and spur us to greater heights. Read also the biographies of those who are at the top of your own profession or business. If you are a lawyer, read the biographies of successful or legendary lawyers. If a doctor, read the life stories of the unforgettable doctors of your country and the world.

The remaining 25% includes all other reading that you might consider as miscellaneous, including fiction, poetry, journals, short stories and blogs.

Tips for reading more and better

For most people, the problem is not finding the books but the time to sit down with them. Fortunately, helpful tips and techniques abound. In all cases, the ground rule is rather simple: pick up a book and sit down to read it. If you want to read a book, the first thing to do is simply to start.

The 10% rule: This popular rule has worked for many people. It asks you read 10% of your selected book every day, and guarantees that you will finish any book in 10 days. Following this rule diligently would get you through at least 36 books a year, close to Bill Gates’ 50.

Read when you can: The best-selling author Stephen King is said to read whenever he is doing nothing else. Standing at a bus stand, waiting at a grocery store, in a bus, or at the beach, he will be reading something or the other. You’d be surprised how much reading you could pack into a day with this simple approach.

Cancel your news and magazine distractions: We all do a great deal of trivial reading every day. This includes online browsing of news channels, YouTube videos, daily newspapers, gossip magazines, and other reading that could be best described as forgettable. A day later, you are likely to remember none of it. Cutting down on this or limiting it to absolute essentials would suddenly free up significant time for reading.

Read books recommended by those who read books: This is a surefire way to ensure that your reading its nutritious and enriching. Nearly all great and successful people from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to Barrack Obama and Stephen Hawking have listed their top 10 favorite books. What better place for you to start building your own reading list?

Block time for reading: If the 10% rule is too difficult to maintain, try blocking a fixed chunk of time every day for just reading. This could be as little as 20 minutes while you sip coffee in the morning, or half an hour before you nod off to sleep, but it will ensure a steady, stable reading habit.

A world of powerful inspiration and motivation sits within reach of you. All you have to do is — reach out. If you want a single good reason why you should start a reading habit today, remember these words of one of American earliest women’s rights advocates, Margaret Fuller, once said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”


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