The Daily Reading Habit That Made Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Barack Obama Wildly Successful

December 20, 2023

Justin Kerby

No matter what your passion, project, or profession, reading habits can help you accomplish your goals. Reading helps us understand new perspectives, teaches us empathy, and is the birthplace of new ideas. You’d be hardpressed to find a better place to invest your time than at a library.

It’s why some of the world’s most successful people – people whose time is more valuable than most – choose to spend so much time reading. When we look at the reading habits of Bill Gates, it’s impressive he has time to get anything else done!

As a marketing professional who owns a social media agency in Vancouver, I’ve read well over 100 books on my craft alone. If you’re in the industry, check out my favorite book for new marketers (or new business owners getting started with marketing), my favorite book on advertising, my favorite book on copywriting, and my favorite book on business growth. Every morning and every evening I block out an hour and a half for reading, and it’s made me substantially better at my job. It’s led to new ideas, the revamping of old ones, and the mastering of skills I never thought I’d achieve. In short, no matter what you want to become better at, reading is the way.

By the way, if you want to be a better reader, learn the basics of speed reading. It changed my life.

Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama all share a passion for reading. They make it a priority and each have their own daily reading habit that’s helped them become wildly successful. Here’s a look at how they practice their reading habit, and a few of their all-time favorite books.  

Bill Gates Reading Habits

bill gates reading habits

Photo via Jim Mattis

Gates, the founder of Microsoft and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has long been an avid reader.

To be honest, avid is putting it mildly.

Gates won’t begin reading a book that he won’t finish. According to his wife Melinda, Bill reads approximately 150 pages per hour, a staggering speed, especially given that he takes in and understands the vast majority of what he reads (his comprehension level is off the charts).

He takes notes as he goes, whether it be in the margins or on a yellow legal pad. He prefers paper books to ebooks and makes sure he blocks out at least an hour when he does sit down with a book. Gates says that you need at least an hour to get in a groove.  

Gates is most well known for founding and being the Chairman and CEO of Microsoft for so many years, but his second career is equally, if not more impressive. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is saving lives around the world, and it all started from reading an article. Bill and Melinda came across an article in the New York Times in 1998 by Nicholas Kristof about 3 million kids around the globe dying from diarrhea, and they knew they had to help. The article inspired them to launch their foundation, which today is the largest charitable organization in the world. Sometimes, as was in this case, the simple act of reading can change the lives of millions. If you’re a writer, this anecdote should inspire you to share your thoughts with the world. You never know who’s reading.

Here’s a quick look at the five books Gates would bring to a desert island with him, and the reason he loves each so much.

Bill Gates Favorite Books of All Time

1. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales From The World of Wall Street by John Brooks

“Warren Buffett gave me this fantastic collection of articles that Brooks wrote for The New Yorker. Although Brooks was writing in the 1960s, his insights are timeless and a reminder that the rules for running a great company don’t change. I read it more than two decades ago, and it’s still my pick for the best business book ever.”

2. Parenting With Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay

“As the parents of three children, Melinda and I have spent a lot of time reading and discussing this book. It has been an invaluable guide for both of us, especially when it comes to de-escalating those inevitable conflicts between parents and kids.”

3. Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay

“A fantastic guide to thinking more numerically about clean energy, and the most accessible explanation of this subject that I’ve seen. I still refer to it myself, which is a bittersweet experience now—David died in April, at the age of 48.”

4. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

“Proof that the world is becoming more peaceful. It’s not just a question for historians, but a profound statement about human nature and the possibility for a better future. This book may have shaped my outlook more than any other.”

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: ‘His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.’”

Warren Buffett’s Reading Habits and Practice

warren buffetts reading habits

Photo By USA International Trade Administration

As of writing, Buffett is the fourth richest person in the world. Born in 1930, and known in the investment world as the “Oracle of Omaha”, Buffett has made his fortune by being the greatest investor of the last 100 years. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, wholly owns world-renowned brands including GEICO, Duracell, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, and Long & Foster, not to mention partially owning companies such as American Express, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Apple. He’s (via Berkshire) consistently beat the annual growth in book value of the S&P 500 since 1965, 19.0% compared to 9.7%.

If that doesn’t sound incredibly impressive to you, consider this: If you invested $1,000 into the S&P 500 in 1965, you’d have almost $150,000 today. If you invested that same $1,000 in Berkshire Hathaway with Warren Buffett, you’d have over $12 million.

So what’s his secret? He gave us some insight during a Columbia Business School talk. When asked about his secret to success, he picked up a big pile of papers and replied:

“Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Buffett says he spends over 80% of his day reading, taking in between 600 and 1000 pages per day when he was beginning his investing career.

Here’s a look at five of Warren Buffett’s favorite books, along with some of his thoughts on them.

Warren Buffet’s Favorite Books

1. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales From The World of Wall Street by John Brooks

When asked to recommend his favorite book to Bill Gates, Buffett didn’t miss a beat. “It’s Business Adventures by John Brooks, I’ll send you my copy.”

2. The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham

“To invest successfully over a lifetime does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information,” Buffett said. “What’s needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding that framework. This book precisely and clearly prescribes the proper framework. You must provide the emotional discipline.”

3. Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip A. Fisher

“I am an eager reader of whatever Phil has to say, and I recommend him to you.”

4. Jack: Straight From The Gut by Jack Welch

“Welch has had such an impact on modern business that a tour of his personal history offers all managers valuable lessons.”

5. The Outsiders by William Thorndike, Jr.

“An outstanding book about CEOs who excelled at capital allocation.”

Barack Obama’s Reading Habits

habits of successful people

Photo via Unsplash

President Obama is well known for being a voracious reader. He’s been described as the President most influenced by reading and writing since Abraham Lincoln.

We’ve read stories about his bookstore visits, browsed through his summer reading lists, and have even read his words about how reading shaped his life in his own books.

Reading was critical for Obama during his younger years. It’s how he discovered what he believed in and stood for. This dates back to his teenage years when he was reading Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois, and Malcolm X. Later, in his college years, he immersed himself in philosophy, studying St. Augustine, Nietzsche, Emerson, Sartre and Niebuhr. He used these texts to strip down his beliefs so he could build them back up.

During his years in the White House, his passion for reading never faded. In fact, it helped him through many difficult times.

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to “slow down and get perspective, and to get in somebody else’s shoes. These two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

Writings from Lincoln, MLK Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were “particularly helpful when what you wanted was a sense of solidarity,” said Obama, adding “during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.”

Every night in the White House Obama would read at minimum for half an hour, typically late into the night.

“I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half-hour to read before I go to bed, about midnight, 12:30 a.m., sometimes a little later.”

His book selections ranged from contemporary literary fiction to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction. He felt that a transition in genres was good for him to get out of his own head and escape the Washington bubble. Though some may think so, reading fiction is by no means a waste of time.

Here’s a look at Barack Obama’s favorite books of all time.

Barack Obama’s Favorite Books

1. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

3. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch

4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

5. Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do you want to get better at? Writing? Investing? Copywriting? Politics? Marketing? Software Development? Sales?

Whatever it is, building a reading habit is a keystone habit that can take you to the next level. Start by setting aside 30 minutes every morning or evening depending on your schedule and work your way up. If the President of the United States can find the time, so can you.

Written by

Justin Kerby

Justin is the founder of Something Great Marketing, leading our Vancouver marketing agency. He specializes in content strategy, website design, and branding.

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