How to read like Bill Gates

Gates reads 50 books a year. How does he process all this information?

Founding Fuel

[Photo by Kuhlmann /MSC (CC BY 3.0 de)]

Dear friend,

In the series finale of Silicon Valley, Bill Gates makes a cameo appearance to comment on a huge, deliberate, fraudulent—but ethical—goof-up by the super smart, super clumsy protagonists of the show and to correctly point out that “something doesn’t add up”. The scene is totally in line with the image we have of Gates—no doubt shaped and strengthened by documentaries such as Inside Bill's Brain (on Netflix)—as a person who has a big and accurate picture of how the world works. While others accept the narrative given to them, Gates is the one smart guy who shakes his head and says “It doesn’t add up”.  

Whether we attribute that superpower to Gates or not, there is no mistaking that he is one of the most well-informed people in the world. And he gets a good deal of that information from reading books. He reads 50 books a year. And his excellent blog, Gates Notes, is a fantastic resource for finding good books to understand the world better. His latest year-end list is out.  

I was keen to understand how Gates processes all this information that he gathers from books. Thankfully, he has spoken about it in different interviews. Here are some of my takeaways

  • Take notes: “When you’re reading you have to be careful that you really are concentrating, particularly if it’s a non-fiction book, are you taking the new knowledge and sort of attaching to the knowledge you have. And for me taking notes helps make sure that I’m really thinking hard about what’s in there.” (More in this video)
  • Fit new knowledge into a logical framework: “If you have a broad framework, then you have a place to put everything. If you want to learn science, reading the history of scientists and the story of scientists about when they were confused and what tools or insights allowed them to make the progress they make—so you have the timeline, or you have the map, or you have the branches of science and what’s known and what’s not known.” (More in this video)
  • Set aside time for books: The Netflix documentary talks about the ‘Think Weeks’, during which he goes off-grid, taking with him a tote bag full of books. He totally immerses into the books there, taking notes, making connections. This is besides the hour he sets aside every day to read books.

At Founding Fuel, we devour books, and not a week passes without a reference to a new book or a recommendation to a must-read book. We have carried pieces based on the books (and some of the stories that have appeared here have evolved into books eventually).

However, if there is one author Founding Fuel readers will immediately think of at the mention of books, it would be D Shivakumar, who has been running The Gist since the start. His list of recommendations for 2018 and a mid-year list for 2019 received a great response. He is now in the process of putting together the best books he read this year. Watch out for it in the next couple of weeks. 

What are your favourite books? Please share your recommended list, ideally with a couple of lines on why you chose those particular books.

Have a great week!

NS Ramnath 

For Team Founding Fuel

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.