October 15, 2015

Time disappears. A new world reveals itself. The future will be different than the past because of the words you’ve read.

If you’ve ever read a good book, you know what I’m talking about. And at $20 give or take, a book may be one of the best investments in the world.

But all books are not created equal, and finding that gem is not easy. It means going beyond bestseller lists and your close network (your friends are likely to be people just like you. So, the books they recommend will likely not open you up to whole new worlds).

To find unique approaches that work, I interviewed top entrepreneurs who love reading and analyzed recommended book lists of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other world-class leaders.

1) Read Book Lists

Credit: Rory Cellan (Sheryl Sandberg), Elon Musk (Brian Sollis), Steve Jurveston (Steve Jobs), Bill Gates (Bill Gates), Chris Craymer (Oprah Winfrey), Steve Jurveston (Jeff Bezos)

One of the best hacks for getting into the mind of a role model is to read the books that shaped his or her thinking.

Fortunately, that information is readily available because many top entrepreneurs have shared their favorite books publicly.

Austin Epperson and I spent over 30 hours researching and combining 50+ book lists of prominent entrepreneurs and executives like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Elon Musk into one document of 460+ book recommendations. Then, we analyzed which books were recommended the most.

Here are the top six:

Have you read these yet? If not, it’s time to load up your Amazon shopping cart.

To see the full document with all of the book recommendations along with why each executive recommended the book, visit our site.

2) Read To Solve Problems You’re Facing

Ryan Simonetti, co-founder of Convene (Credit: Bobby Friedel)

If you’re reading for business value, it’s important to think in advance about what problem you’re ‘hiring’ the book to solve.

Just as you would carefully consider anyone you hire or seek professional advice from, so should it go with a book you want to gain business insight from.

Ryan Simonetti, co-founder of Convene, which has 150+ employees, has a very specific process he uses when picking a book for business purposes. He asks himself three simple questions:

  • What am I trying to learn or improve?
  • Why is it so important to me?
  • Why is this particular book (over an alternative) going to be the best resource to help me accomplish that goal?

This problem solving approach led Simonetti to read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz as he struggled with some tough questions surrounding the launch of a new business line, which was causing stress in the organization.

“It was the perfect selection,” Simonetti said. “Absolutely incredible book by the way and a must read for any founder or venture capitalist investor.”

3) Search For Great Chapters; Not Just Great Books

Cameron Herold, author of Double Double, CEO coach, and globally renowned speaker (Credit: Cameron Herold)

Similar to Simonetti, Cameron Herold, author of Double Double and a CEO coach to high-growth businesses, reads books that help him solve problems.

Every 3–6 months, Herold considers all the core projects that he’s involved in, or is leading. Then he looks for books that will give him an edge and help him be successful in those projects.

From there, he focuses like a laser beam on only the parts of the book that are relevant to his projects.

“Business books are not novels. You do not have to read them from front to back,” Herold says.

With this approach, instead of spending 10 hours reading a book, Cameron can spend 1 hour and get what he needs.

To focus in on the most pertinent chapters or sections, you can use the skim before you read approach:

  • Read the title page and preface to understand what the book is about.
  • Look at the table of contents to get a sense of how the book is organized.
  • Go to the index to see the topics in the book and the types of publications the writer cites.
  • Flip through the book with an emphasis on chapter intros and conclusions to understand the main themes of the book.
  • If provided, examine the writer’s summary of the book (often found in the back).

4) Read Leadership Memoirs

Jessica Mah, founder and CEO of inDinero (Credit: Jason Henry for The New York Times)

Winston Churchill famously stated, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

Reading about historic business, military, social and political leaders from the US and across the world gives you a window into the past, and a better perspective on how historic leaders have shaped the world we live in now, and will live in the future. Furthermore, leadership memoirs are fun to read and give you insight into how to be a better leader.

Jessica Mah, founder and CEO of Indinero, which has 140+ employees, focuses on reading memoirs of great leaders in many of the 100+ books she reads per year. Whenever a memoir she’s reading mentions another leader, she reads that other person’s memoir as well. In so doing, she understands how qualities of exceptional leaders stay the same and differ across time, place, and domain.

Research from Stanford on how people develop expertise shows that this approach has a lot of merit. “Contrasting examples” helps you uncover deep underlying principles that you can apply across a wide variety of disciplines.

5) Read Source Material

Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList

Social media can be a profound exchange of ideas — and incredibly useful when those ideas are actually true.

However, many people repost things that sound true, but aren’t, before they’ve even read the actual content. Maybe you’re guilty of this yourself sometimes? I am.

In this way, we are all playing a giant game of “telephone,” where a message is whispered from person to person and gets distorted along the way. The same happens in our society with ideas.

Going back to source materials gives you a deeper and more accurate understanding of a topic.

This is why Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList and one of the most respected technology entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, chooses to read source books.

In a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, he shared that he had recently read Darwin’s The Origin Of Species to more fully grasp the theory of evolution.

“[The theory of evolution] is my binding principle whenever I’m trying to explain any human action. People read all kinds of blog posts and tweets on evolution. Everyone has a loose understanding of how evolution works, but how many have actually read The Origin Of Species?” Ravikant said during the podcast.

Source materials aren’t just about books that were written decades ago. According to the book, Outsiders, Warren Buffett has kept up a habit of reading 3 annual reports a day for his entire career. This way, instead of depending on other analysts, he can form his own independent opinion.

To apply this strategy to your life, think about the foundational ideas that are part of your life and then look for the source book. For example, Democracy In America by Alexis de Tocqueville and The Wealth Of Nations by Adam Smith can help you understand democracy and capitalism.

6) Read Old Books To Shed New Light On Old Problems

Jason Duff, founder and CEO of COMSTOR Outdoor (Credit: Jason Duff)

Jason Duff, founder and CEO of multimillion dollar company COMSTOR Outdoor, loves finding old ideas that still work but have been forgotten, and applying them to his businesses.

“Many people have a bias against ideas that are more than a few years old,” Duff said. “The assumption is that they are outdated. However, many extremely important ideas are timeless and books that have withstood the test of time are the best place to find them.”

Similar to reading source materials, Ravikant, founder of AngelList, also sees the value in reading books from previous generations or eras because they have been vetted through millions of readers, and offer insights that may be overlooked by the current generation. Such books include those written by great philosophers, which look at age old problems and solutions, and still offer valid and compelling advice on how to live a good life.

“If you’re talking about an old problem, like how to keep your body healthy, how to stay calm and peaceful of mind, what kinds of value systems are good, how should you raise your family…these kinds of things, the older solutions are probably better because they’ve withstood the test of time,” Ravikant said.

7) Read Popular Books In Different Fields

Frans Johansson, founder of The Medici Group (Credit: Alicia Hansen)

One of the fastest ways to come up with innovative ideas is to find best practices in other fields and be the first to bring it to yours. You can do this by reading books outside your field that are relevant to your industry.

The challenge is that learning from another field is like learning a whole new language and culture. That’s why most people don’t do it.

Frans Johansson, author of Medici Effect and founder of The Medici Group, recommends overcoming this challenge by picking up 5 popular books and magazines that cover different fields, and taking time to connect the different ideas, business models, and designs to whatever you’re working on right now.

“Magazines are designed to cover topics in a way that a general audience will understand and find interesting, so they’re a great place to start,” Johansson said. “Starting with a niche academic journal can set you up for failure as you’d have to learn a whole new vocabulary first.”

To find books from other fields, consider using the source book approach mentioned earlier in the article. These source books will give you a foundation in the field so reading more books becomes easier. Another approach is reading books in fields that intersect your own. For example, if your specialty is tech, it would be easier for you to jump into the field of biotech than it would be to jump into the field of manufacturing.

This approach, also known as near transfer in the academic literature, works better for transferring concepts from one field to another than trying to jump into widely different fields.

8) Utilize’s Recommendation Features In The Right Way

Emerson Spartz, founder and CEO of Spartz Inc. (Credit: Emerson Spartz)

Using’s “People Who Bought This Also Bought” feature is a great way to help you find books you’d never normally come across, advisesEmerson Spartz, founder and CEO of Spartz Inc., a digital media company which owns Dose and OMG Facts and collectively has 50 million visitors per month.

Spartz scrolls through the list of books in the “People Who Bought This Also Bought” feature, picks one that looks interesting, and then repeats the process again and again. He does this up to 50 times, often ending up with a book on a completely new subject.

Spartz, who taught himself to speed read as a teenager and reads 100+ books per year, justifies the value of spending time on book research this way:

“Most nonfiction books will take 5–12 hours to read, so if you spend 10 minutes on research to choose a book that is 3x as impactful on you, it’s the equivalent of reading 3x the number of books in the same time.”

9) Find Great Curation Books

Tom Walter, CEO of Tasty Catering (Credit: Edward Fox Photography)

What makes a book relevant is not just its ideas; it’s how the ideas relate to your life, your business, and the world.

Great curation books helps you contextualize and link many different ideas in ways that may not be immediately obvious otherwise.

Tom Walter, CEO of award winning Tasty Catering ($7 M+ revenue) has a favorite curation book; Great Thinkers of the Western World: The Major Ideas and Classic Works of More Than 100 Outstanding Western Philosophers, Physical and Social Scientists, Psychologists, Religious Writers and Theologians.

Good To Great, Outsiders, and Giants Of Enterprise are other examples of great works of curation. Book awards draw from a large, diverse pool of works as well, such as the annual Royal Society Winton Prize that recommends the best science books in that year. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has done this for forgotten gems and classics that are still relevant today. Millions of people visit her blog every month to understand what she’s reading.

As a resource for this article, I put together a 7-page report you can download at no cost. It took over 30 hours to find and comb through 60+ book lists of top entrepreneurs and CEOs to find which books have been recommended the most. I put it together because I personally was very interested in what the most recommended books were, and I thought you might be interested too.

Special thanks to Rachel Zohn, Sheena Lindahl, Austin Epperson, Antonia Donato and Ian Chew who volunteered their time to edit this article and do research.

Disclosure: Some of the contributors featured in this article are members ofSeminal, a selective council that distills research-backed, actionable insights from world-class entrepreneurs and leaders.


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