It is rare that we have the opportunity to peer into the minds of titans, to follow along as they expand their knowledge and refine their way of thinking. With most, we are limited to the books they write and their public statements. Everything they say seems to have come from the ether, as though these blessed individuals just know things.
But Bill Gates is not a man to hide behind the curtain. Even if he has never been as flashy as some other tech giants, he has been generous enough to give us a look into his own self-education and interests, so that we too can find out a little bit about what makes great men tick.
Gates estimates that he reads about 50 books a year, and the best of these are profiled on his blog, gatesnotes.com. Even if his Microsoft days are over, Gates is not losing interest in business anytime soon, and he reviewed many books that can help entrepreneurs and business leaders achieve success.
While most books on his website would provide value to the inquisitive mind, these nine books provide the most direct, actionable advice for starting, growing, and running a world-class business.
1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck)
Mindset explores the concept of nature versus nurture as it applies to intelligence, and challenges the idea that the talents and qualities we are born with cannot be altered. Instead, she argues that intelligence can be grown like a muscle, and cautions that the belief of static intelligence can be debilitating.
This book helps to dispel the belief that you can't achieve success unless you are born "special," unless you have some magical inborn ability to be great. It is a great motivator, and helps put the rest of this list in context.
In Gates's opinion, "the greatest virtue of the book is that you can't help but ask yourself things like, 'Which areas have I always looked at through a fixed-mindset lens?'" Once you know, you can change your way of thinking to become more productive.
2. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Steven Johnson)
Johnson's book provides a much-needed perspective on innovation and entrepreneurship, acknowledging a more realistic view of how even the largest breakthroughs come to be. Gates praises the book's focus on incremental development, and admits that Microsoft wasn't the result of "a momentous flash of insight." Innovation takes time, but all too often, the story demands entertainment, drama, larger-than-life characters. But contrary to popular representation, most big companies are not the result of a House-like moment, where one sentence triggers a brilliant revelation.
Where Good Ideas Come From is a great book for the entrepreneur, not only because it brings the story of innovation down to earth, but also because it examines the kind of conditions that foster development. With this book in hand, you can help shape the conditions that are conducive to success.
3. Business Adventures (John Brooks)
If Bill Gates recommends a business book, there's a pretty good chance it's worth checking out. If Bill Gates and Warren Buffett lavish praise on a book, the real question is why you don't already have your credit card out.
Business Adventures consists of a series of case studies, examining troubles and triumphs at companies such as General Electric, Ford, and Xerox. It provides a great view on the human factor of successful companies: Do you have the right people? Do they have the right roles?
"Business Adventures is as much about the strengths and weaknesses of leaders in challenging circumstances as it is about the particulars of one business or another. In that sense, it is still relevant not despite its age but because of it. John Brooks's work is really about human nature, which is why it has stood the test of time."
4. Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)
If Gates found value in the case study of famous characters from the '60s, you better believe he was quick to pick up this riveting account of his peer, his competitor, and his (sometimes) friend.
Steve Jobs is a brutally honest account of the man's life, work, and mind. But the book holds much more than entertainment value, and closely follows the development of Apple's famous flagship products. Readers beware: After you finish this book, you may find your Amazon cart full of books on design and product development.
5. The Art of Being Unreasonable (Eli Broad)
It is only fitting that this book follows Steve Jobs. That man was famous for his "reality distortion field," his ability to push people to do seemingly impossible things. The Art of Being Unreasonable follows that same vein, pushing readers to reject limits, ask unreasonable things of people, and take big risks. Broad wants his readers to avoid being second at all costs, to demand more of themselves and others, and to seek the best in everything. It's no surprise that this book ended up on Gates's list.
6. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably (Nassim Taleb)
Continuing with this idea of changing our way of thinking, The Black Swan is a thought-provoking exercise, prompting us to reexamine how we predict the future. Taleb argues that "history does not crawl, it jumps." We are pattern-seeking creatures, and put a lot of faith in what we've seen in the past. Yet this same outlook, while valuable, can blind us to many of the future's possibilities. This book is a great way to shake up some of your ingrained beliefs, and help you start thinking about how to be ready for when these random events occur.
7. Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)
Gates's main takeaway from Outliers is the idea that "we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing." Sound familiar? It is a very good complement to Where Good Ideas Come From, examining the environmental factors of success and not just the central characters. And, like with Johnson's book, it can help you figure out what factors will promote these desirable qualities.
8. The Road to Character (David Brooks)
Gates's enormous success and current standing in life have, understandably, led to some serious self-reflection about his impact on the world. One of the most notable figures in philanthropy, Gates was not always so beloved, and those who lived during the rise of Microsoft do not forget how he conducted business.
Brook's book is about that conflict of ego and character, manifested in "Adam I" and "Adam II." The former represents our ambitious side, while the latter represents our moral side, the side that wants to do good in this world. The Road to Character examines this dual nature of ours through profiles of historical figures, demonstrating how this dynamic can play out in real life. In the end, Brooks says, we can achieve true, meaningful satisfaction only through Adam II. The big question, which Gates asks himself, is "At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world's deep need?"
9. Showing Up for Life (Bill Gates Sr.)
It is not family loyalty that brought this book to Gates's list, but its relevance to anybody seeking success in life, entrepreneur or not. Showing Up for Life is a wonderful collection of short essay from Bill's father, promoting good life principles in his stories of business, family, and personal experiences. It might not contain revolutionary business principles or hard-hitting tactics, but hopefully it will encourage you to take a look at your own life, and what you can learn from them.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet in business or in life, no one single book that will give you all the answers. It is the culmination of dozens of books such as these, of meaningful experiences, of good company, that will inform how you approach your business and your life. This list is a great start for those starting out, but if you want to be successful, don't stop with number nine. Find the resources that speak to you, and never stop learning.