The Transformative Effects of Reading + Elon Musk's Reading List

Photo by Amanda Tipton.

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

Charlie Munger, American business magnate

If there's one thing that unites the world's most successful people, from billionaires to top scientists, it's this: they read. A lot.

Warren Buffett says, "I just sit in my office and read all day." Up to 80% of his time is spent reading and thinking. Buffet says that through reading hundreds of pages a day his knowledge builds up, much like compound interest.

Elon Musk is another famously voracious reader. "He would go through two books in one day," says Elon's brother, Kimbal. Though Musk has degrees in Physics and Economics, he is self-taught in aerospace and automotive engineering, the two primary concerns of his companies, SpaceX and Tesla.

You know, whenever anybody asks Elon how he learned to build rockets, he says, 'I read books.' Well, it's true. He devoured those books.

Jim Cantrell, Aerospace consultant, on Elon Musk

Oprah Winfrey is famous for her lifelong love of reading. She says she has been a passionate reader since the age of three, and credits books with spurring her to rise above her circumstances to something greater.

Books were my pass to personal freedom. I learned to read at age three, and soon discovered there was a whole world to conquer that went beyond our farm in Mississippi.

Oprah Winfrey

Bill Gates fans have come to anticipate his yearly blog posts listing the best books he read that year. Gates' reading list is wide-ranging and spans both fiction and non-fiction books, from The Rosie Effect by Don Tillman to Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.

“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

The names I've mentioned so far are famous for their reading habits. Yet, even a broader selection of high achievers—in this case, self-made billionaires—reveals a common love for reading. Across the 14 entrepreneurs profiled in this Forbes article, those interviewed read an average of 2.6 hours per day, not including email or other correspondence. By contrast, the average American spends only 19 minutes a day reading.

Though time spent reading is one factor, what these people read is also telling. In most cases they are 'Reading to Lead', devouring books (as opposed to articles, magazines, and social media posts) on challenging topics, by challenging authors.

Reading a book is the closest we can come to sharing the mind of a great thinker. After all, what is a book but thoughts transcribed? Spend a lot of time with great people and we cannot help but be transformed by the experience.

If you want to become a more interesting person, with a broader base of knowledge, more enlightened opinions, a vocabulary that expresses the nuances in how you see and experience the world, then reading well is a wonderful shortcut.

Read widely. Wide readers are able to stitch together disparate ideas from varied fields in ways that seem new.

Slow down: read to absorb, not to finish quickly. If you're looking for something to read, choose something that seems difficult. To read difficult books, you're going to need to slow down, to pause, to highlight, to take notes.

Read fiction, too. Elon Musk has been deeply inspired by the works of science fiction visionaries like Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Iian M. Banks. Reading fiction makes you better at imagining what doesn't exist (yet). Reading literary fiction also improves empathy.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Read books. Reading a blog post or article is like being briefly dunked in an idea. A book is like being steeped in it. If you've ever wondered why you read a great blog post, decide to make a change or start practicing a new technique as a result, but then swiftly go back to your old ways, it's because you haven't had time to truly be steeped in its ideas. Blog posts sit with you for minutes, while books envelop you in their ideas for hours: about how long it takes for something to really stick.

Read to emulate. If you want to be more like someone you admire, a simple first step is to read what they read. You'll be exposed to the people and ideas that have influenced them the most.

A person's reading list is, in many ways, a portrait of who they are.

What will you read next?

Elon Musk’s Reading List

Musk is a constant reader, and this represents just a small selection of books he has publicly spoken about reading. And yet, the books present a fitting portrait of the man: the inventor, the industrialist, the high achiever, the futurist, the man who believes he is trying to save the world.

While the books on a person's reading list suggest something about who they are, the books that are missing may say something about who they are not.

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