Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Warren Buffett. Jeff Bezos. Larry Page. They are all polymaths too.
by Michael Simmons, Serial Entrepreneur, Bestselling Author, Contributor To Fortune, Forbes, HBR, Time, & Many More
The founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all share two uncommon traits. After studying self-made billionaires for many years now, I believe that these two traits are responsible for a lot of their wealth, success, impact, and fame. In fact, I put so much faith in these two traits that I’ve used them in my own life to start companies, be a better writer, be a better husband, and achieve financial security.
Here are the two traits:
Let’s unpack these two terms, and learn a few simple tips for using them in your own life.
First, the definitions. I define a voracious learner as someone who follows the 5-hour rule — dedicating at least five hours per week to deliberate learning. I define a polymath as someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a skill set that puts them in the top 1% of their field. If you model these two traits and you take them seriously, I believe they can have a huge impact on your life and really accelerate your success toward your goals. When you become a voracious learner, you compound the value of everything you’ve learned in the past. When you become a polymath, you develop the ability to combine skills, and you develop a unique skill set, which helps you develop a competitive advantage.
By Bill Gates’ own estimate, he’s read one book a week for 52 years, many of them having nothing to do with software or business. He also has taken an annual two-week reading vacation for his entire career. In a fascinating 1994 Playboy interview, we see that he already thought of himself as a polymath:
PLAYBOY: Do you dislike being called a businessman?
GATES: Yeah. Of my mental cycles, I devote maybe ten percent to business thinking. Business isn’t that complicated. I wouldn’t want to put it on my business card.
PLAYBOY: What, then?
GATES: Scientist. Unless I’ve been fooling myself. When I read about great scientists like, say, Crick and Watson and how they discovered DNA, I get a lot of pleasure. Stories of business success don’t interest me in the same way.
The fact that Gates considers himself a scientist is fascinating given that he dropped out of college and had spent his whole life in the software industry at that point.
Interestingly, Elon Musk doesn’t consider himself a businessman either. In this recent CBS interview, Musk says he thinks of himself as more of a designer, engineer, technologist, and even wizard.
The list goes on. Larry Page has been known to spend time talking in depth with everyone from Google janitors to nuclear fusion scientists, always on the lookout for what he can learn from them.
Warren Buffett has pinpointed the key to his success this way: “Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
Jeff Bezos has built his whole company around learning on a massive scale via experimentation and has also been an avid reader his whole life.
Finally, Steve Jobs famously combined various disciplines and looked at it as Apple’s competitive advantage, going so far as to say:
“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”
And, of course, the founders of these five companies aren’t the only massively successful individuals who share these two traits. As I’ve written about before, if we expanded the list to a sample of other self-made billionaires, we quickly see Oprah Winfrey, Ray Dalio, David Rubenstein, Phil Knight, Howard Marks, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Charles Koch, and many others share similar habits.
Why would some of the busiest people in the world invest their most precious resource — time — into learning about topics seemingly unconnected to their fields, like fusion power, font design, biographies of scientists, and doctors’ memoirs?
Each of them commands organizations of thousands of the smartest people in the world. They’ve delegated almost every task in their lives and businesses to the best and brightest. So why have they held on to this intense amount of learning?
After writing several articles attempting to answer these questions, this is what I’ve ultimately come to:
At the highest levels, learning isn’t something you do to prepare for your work. Learning is the most important work. It is the core competency to build. It’s the thing you never delegate. And it’s one of the ultimate drivers of long-term performance and success.
As I came to this realization, I wondered: Why isn’t it obvious that we should all become voracious learners and polymaths throughout our whole lives given that we live in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, advanced-knowledge economy? Why does the average person think of deliberate learning as an optional thing to do on the side?
I think it’s because of three strong messages we’ve all been taught — in school, in college, and in general society — that may have been true in the past but are definitely no longer true. Here’s how these three lies break down:
- Lie #1: Disciplines are the best way to categorize knowledge.
- Lie #2: Most learning happens in school/college.
- Lie #3: You must pick one field and specialize in it.
These beliefs are so insidious that they’ve destroyed our intuition about learning and knowledge, and they ultimately hold us back from creating the success we want. If we can become aware of them, we can rectify them, just as the most successful people in the world have done.