To many, Bill Gates is a hero. But the billionaire philanthropist has shown that even world-class icons have idols of their own.
For him, one among them is Anna Rosling Rönnlund. In a blog post earlier this year, Gates dubbed the Swedish social entrepreneur a hero for “making a difference in the world” through her work.
That’s high praise indeed. But Rosling Rönnlund said anyone can start replicating that success if they adopt one key skill: the ability to read statistics.
“The biggest skill to learn moving forward, I would say, would be to learn to deal with statistics,” Rosling Rönnlund told CNBC Make It. "Those who can will be the successful ones, I think."
That doesn’t mean scary formulas and complex calculations, though.
"I really mean using excel sheets and doing simple, simple sums. Looking at trends and trying to figure out where they're heading," she said.
Rosling Rönnlund is co-founder of Gapminder, a Stockholm, Sweden-based "fact tank" which aims to fight "devastating misconceptions" about the world using global data. She felt compelled to set up the foundation with her husband, Ola, and father-in-law, the late Swedish statistician and a friend of Gates', Hans Rosling, after they identified "systemic" gaps in public general knowledge.
"The world is changing so quickly, but people's world views are not catching up with the data," 43-year-old Rosling Rönnlund said.
In a survey of 12,000 people in 14 of the world's richest and most highly educated countries, when presented in 2017 with 12 questions on basic global trends, respondents answered an average of just two correctly.
Here's a sample question from the survey. The full test can be taken here.
There are roughly seven billion people in the world today. Which map shows where people live? (Each figure represents 1 billion people.)
On the whole, the results pointed to a far more pessimistic global image than the reality of the underlying data. In actual fact, the world is improving on a number of measures from child mortality rates to global poverty levels.
Rosling Rönnlund said that skewed outlook can be damaging not only on a personal level, but also on industrial levels. Having an inaccurate world view can impact the careers we enter into and the way global leaders and financial institutions invest.
For instance, when a group of bankers and Nobel Laureate medics were asked how many of the world's one-year-olds had received some form of vaccination, alarmingly the vast majority got it wrong, suggesting that global institutions could be focusing on the wrong issues and missing significant development opportunities.
To combat that, Rosling Rönnlund said people should continuously update their world view with recent statistics, taking a child's approach of "humility and curiosity." Her website, Dollar Street, uses photos to put those statistics into context.
That's only going to become more important as global demographics shift and growing economies, particularly in Asia, take more of a role on the world stage.
“Children are so used to being wrong that if you tell them ‘no, that’s wrong’ they say ‘okay’ and they start using the new facts,” she said.
“But when we’re adults we have a pride in the education we’ve got, or the way we learn, or the ideology we believe in, so we tend to get stuck. Even if the world is changing around us, we have a hard time seeing that,” Rosling Rönnlund continued.
“That’s not something we do because we’re stupid, or uneducated, it’s something that we humans tend to do because the world becomes easier to live in if we have a certain set of rules that we can follow because we have to make fewer decisions."
"Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think," the book co-authored by the Rosling trio sets out new frameworks to readjust those world views.
Already it has made it onto Gates' 2018 reading list.
Earlier this year he said the world would be a better place if “literally millions of people read the book.” Shortly afterward, he set those wheels in motion by gifting e-copies of the book to anyone earning an associate's, bachelor's or post-graduate degree from an accredited college or university in the U.S.
Rosling Rönnlund added that young people hold an especially important role in implementing that framework and shifting the global agenda.
“In this new society where everything’s moving so fast, traditional hierarchies and job titles are slipping away and the young actually have a lot to teach their elders," she said.
That can be as much within the education system as in the workplace, Rosling Rönnlund added. She recommended starting with the quiz to see where people's knowledge gaps lie before drawing on recent data from the United Nations and the World Bank to update it.
“It can be a moment for reflection, for saying ‘woah, we thought we knew but we don’t’ and ‘look, we as a collective had it wrong,'" she said.
"If you make that work, which I’ve heard of people achieving, then people don’t need to feel embarrassed and it can actually be pretty fun.”