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Tommy Weir: Read and learn like Warren Buffett, for knowledge is power

Warren Buffett reads 500 or more pages per day. This constant intake is how knowledge builds up over time. The more you put in, the greater the value it brings.

Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairman, credit their success to the fact they are learning machines. We all know they are smart and yet they keep on getting smarter. According to Mr Buffett and Mr Munger, the secret to getting smarter is evidenced in their day to day habit – read a lot.

This reminded me of the advice one of my university professors continually challenged his students with: “The people you meet and books you read will determine where you are in five years.”

The operative word related to reading is “the books” you read. Obviously he gave this advice long before social media distracted society from taking the time to read anything longer than 140 characters. The essence of his advice is the foundation of the “Buffett Formula”, which is that smartness comes from a high volume of reading.

Mr Buffett says: “I just sit in my office and read all day.” He reads 500 or more pages per day. This constant intake is how knowledge builds up over time. The more you put in, the greater the value it brings. It is like compounded interest.

These two investors are not alone when it comes to benefiting from placing reading top of their priority list. Actually it is a daily part of the routine of many of the corporate world’s top leaders. While they read variously, it is done secretively, believing that their knowledge acquisition is a competitive advantage.

For example, only a few Nike colleagues ever saw the personal library of the founder, Phil Knight. To enter the room behind his formal office, one had to remove shoes and bow: the ceilings were low, the space intimate, the degree of reverence demanded for these volumes on Asian history, art and poetry was greater than any, the self-effacing Mr Knight, demanded for himself.

Until Steve Jobs sold his collection, it remained a secret to most of the world. He reportedly had an “inexhaustible interest” in the books of William Blake — the mad visionary 18th-century mystic poet and artist. Although his thirst for knowledge was in secret, it does not lessen its reality.

A common theme among most of the world’s top leaders is that almost everything they read becomes useful to them — science, poetry, politics, novels. They have a lifelong interest in learning.

As my professor encouraged his students, the books you read will help you develop a way of thinking critically in business.

Learning isn’t easy; it takes hard work. It’s much easier to come home from work to retire in front of the TV watching the latest episode of your favourite show or pick up your iPad and waste hours surfing – wasting the evening away until bedtime rolls around.

It is equally easy to trick yourself into substituting reading tweets and Facebook posts for actually learning. Mr Buffett and like-minded leaders, who are serious about their growth, know it takes more than 140 characters to learn.

In reality, those bite-sized doses of information are someone else’s synthesis. Rather than reading someone else’s opinion on a topic, summary of a book or the cliff notes, learning is not limited to the acquisition of information, it also involves the act of making sense of what you are acquiring.

How you read matters; you need to be thinking while you learn. It requires the mental exercise of thinking about what you are learning, processing it and forming an opinion. To get smarter, you need to acquire information; to get wiser you need to think about it.

Most people go though life not really getting any smarter. I’ve read numerous studies that say adults stop learning in their thirties. Why? They simply won’t do the work required.

It is too easy to make excuses or try to take shortcuts. I cringe when I hear a leader say: “I hired someone else to read and synthesise information so all I have to do is decide”. To me it seems really risky to let others do your thinking for you.

You can get smarter, but you have to work for it.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser and author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings. Follow him on Twitter: @tommyweir

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Updated: June 15, 2014 04:00 AM