Power Players

Books that changed the lives of billionaires Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and more

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates attend the Forbes' 2015 Philanthropy Summit Awards Dinner.
Dimitrios Kambouris | Getty Images

Books shaped the lives of top investors, leaders and entrepreneurs in important ways. One book equipped Warren Buffett with the investing mindset that helped him become a business magnate. Another book influenced the outlook that helped Oprah Winfrey create the distinctive talk show that made her a household name.

CNBC Make It has gathered 10 books that 10 billionaires say changed how they live, think or work. From fiction to self-help, these books helped influence some of the most memorable careers of our time.

1. Warren Buffett

Title: "The Intelligent Investor"
Author: Benjamin Graham
What the book's about: Published in 1949, the book details the philosophy of "value investing" or buying stocks when they are undervalued. Graham, considered one of history's top investors, teaches the basics of evaluating a stock's investment opportunity and what makes a business fundamentally strong.

How it influenced Warren Buffett: At 19, Buffett accidentally bought "The Intelligent Investor" and later re-read the book about a half dozen times. He said it inspired the investment philosophy he uses to this day.

"It changed my life," said Buffett. "Graham's book gave me a bedrock philosophy on investing that made sense. He taught me how to think about the stock market. He taught me that the market was there not to instruct me, but to serve me."

Graham would later become Buffett's hero and mentor.

2. Oprah Winfrey

Title: "The Seat of the Soul"
Author: Gary Zukav
What the book's about: By looking at the evolution of humans through a scientific, spiritual and philosophical lens, spiritual teacher and bestselling author Gary Zukav empowers readers to be their authentic selves. He explains how reflecting deeply on your intentions can help you find your meaning and purpose. These steps will provide you with a more positive view of the world and improve how you interact with others.

How it influenced Oprah Winfrey: Winfrey read "The Seat of the Soul" when it first came out, just a few years after launching "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Prior to reading the book, Winfrey said she was a crowd pleaser, "the kind of woman who wanted to do everything people wanted me to do." But one lesson from the book stayed with her since she first read it: the power of intention.

The idea changed the type of show she hosted, insisting that there be a "thread of truth" and a bigger idea in every interview and segment.

It also changed the choices she made in her personal life. As Winfrey became successful, "cousins" and "school friends" would approach her when they needed things. Though she had a hard time saying "no" to their requests at first, Winfrey said that "principle of intention is literally what saved and changed the trajectory of my living."

"I started to make my decisions on what I intended, not just on what someone else wanted me to do or what I thought would please them," she added.

3. Elon Musk

Title: The "Foundation" series
Author: Isaac Asimov
What the book's about: In the seven-book sci-fi series, a visionary math professor predicts the fall of a galactic empire. As a dark age takes over, he crafts a plan to send scientific colonies to distant planets to help civilization cope with this unavoidable disaster.

How it influenced Elon Musk: A "brilliant" series that he's reread more than once, Musk said the "Foundation" series has been "fundamental to the creation of SpaceX."

Said Musk, "The lesson I drew from that is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one."

Asimov's books taught Musk that "civilizations move in cycles," a lesson that encouraged the entrepreneur to pursue his radical ambitions to transport life to Mars.

"Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth," he said, "it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time."

4. Richard Branson

Title: "Peter Pan"
Author: J.M. Barrie
What the book's about: The 1911 novel tells the story of a mischievous boy named Peter Pan who flies with a girl and her siblings to a wondrous place called Neverland where they find themselves in series of adventures. Peter Pan, who never grows up, has since become a symbol for everlasting youth.

How it influenced Richard Branson: Ever since reading it as a child, Branson said Peter Pan has always been his favorite character. In fact, Branson, who credits much of his success to "thinking like a toddler," and seeing opportunity where others see obstacles, said it's the book that changed his life.

"I've drawn a lot of inspiration from the book," said Branson in an interview with Thrive Global. "I've never really wanted to grow up and I've always wanted to fly."

Branson would later found an airline as well as a space travel company, Virgin Galactic.

5. Meg Whitman

Title: "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works"
Author: A.G. Lafley
What the book's about: The author, a former P&G CEO, offers five questions to help leaders get ahead of their competition. The five questions, Lafley says, helped brands such as Olay, Bounty, Gillette, Swiffer and Febreze and can help people succeed in their everyday moves toward larger strategic goals.

How it influenced Meg Whitman: Upon reading it, the former HP CEO immediately put the lessons she learned in the book into practice at work. It inspired her to organize her whole company around the "Playing to Win" because "it's easily understandable and actually forces the tough trade-offs."

She said, "This notion of where to play, what countries, what market segments, what products, and where not to play because we can't do it profitably, has been a very good discipline."

6. Bill Gates

Title: "Factfulness"
Author: Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund
About the book: "Factfulness," explores why humans are consistently wrong about common problems facing the world. Instead of making decisions based off of facts and data, humans are largely influenced by unconscious biases. The book explores ten instincts that keep humans from putting the world into perspective, such as how we're more likely to pay attention to things that scare us or topics with impressive size and scale.

How it influenced Bill Gates: "Factfulness" has impacted how Gates approaches some of his own private foundation work, offering him a new framework for how to think about the world. Instead of dividing the world into two wealth groups — rich countries and poor countries — the book proposes that there are actually multiple income group levels, ranging from the most extreme poverty where people cannot afford shoes to levels where people have running water or enough disposable income to take vacations.

This is a better way to detect progress in the world, Gates learned. When the world is broken up between just rich and poor countries, it's easy to think anyone without a certain quality of life is poor, Gates wrote.

"This was a breakthrough to me," explained Gates on his blog. "The framework Hans enunciates is one that took me decades of working in global development to create for myself, and I could have never expressed it in such a clear way. I'm going to try to use this model moving forward."

7. Mark Cuban

Title: "The Fountainhead"
Author: Ayn Rand
About the book: An innovative architect named Howard Roark refuses to let the establishment turn down his vision of designing modernist buildings. Roark challenges the conformists around him, but he struggles as critics, and even his love interest, seek to bring him down.

How it influenced Mark Cuban: The Dallas Mavericks owner and investor first read the 753-page book in high school and has since reread it at least three times. He picks it up whenever he's in need of some motivation. Said Cuban, "It encouraged me to think as an individual, take risks to reach my goals and [claim] responsibility for my successes and failures."

The book's themes of faith and persistence have stuck with Cuban. "You could be beaten down by anybody and by everybody and it doesn't matter what everybody else thinks, it's how you see yourself and what your own dreams are," said Cuban in relation to "The Fountainhead."

"Anybody who started a business and built a business knows there's going to be lots of times when you feel beaten down and you need some motivation and that's when I turn to that book among others."

8. Peter Thiel

Title: "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World"
Author: René Girard
About the book: In this book, the philosopher and author explores a number of ideas, including how imitation is at the root of human behavior, leading to competition and pointless conflict.

How it influenced Peter Thiel: The PayPal co-founder first read the book as an undergraduate at Stanford and has said that Girard is the one writer who's influenced him the most due to his "sweeping view of the whole human experience on this planet."

Girard's ideas about imitation have shaped how Thiel sees competition, as rivals can "become obsessed" at the expense of their own goals. Realizing people's "herd-like" natures has driven Thiel to embrace contrarian views as an investor and entrepreneur.

As a leader, Girard's ideas have helped him reduce conflict, understanding that conflicts arise when multiple people want the same thing.

After reading this book, said Thiel, you'll understand that imitation as the root human behavior "is something you will see every day, not just in people around you, but in yourself."

9. Carlos Slim

Title: "Future Shock"
Authors: Alvin and Heidi Toffler
About the book: The 1970 book argued that the rapidly changing technological and social landscape made people distressed and socially paralyzed, otherwise giving them what the Tofflers dubbed "future shock." The book discusses family life, the rise of new businesses, subcultures, lifestyles and human relationships with the goal to prepare society for the changes to come.

How it influenced Carlos Slim: Once the richest men in the world and currently Latin America's richest person, Slim once said that the late author had influenced his investment strategy. Slim attributed his success at predicting market changes to a skill he learned by reading "Future Shock" — spotting opportunity early.

When he and the author met for the first time, slim was holding a dog-eared copy of Toffler's final 2006 book, "Revolutionary Wealth." The two later hit it off as friends.

10. Jack Dorsey

Title: "The Art Spirit"
Author: Robert Henri
What the book's about: In the 1923 book, Realist painter Robert Henri discusses the importance of not only appreciating the beauty of art, but the process of creating it. He points out that while people often let the forces around them interfere with their art or craft, there's always potential for creativity to shine through.

How it influenced Jack Dorsey: The co-founder and CEO of Twitter and Square said that the book underscored an important lesson he's learned through his career: "I've learned throughout my career how important the work is. How important not just the end product is, but the actual craft — doing the work, inventing within the work."

It's also taught him the value of forging your own path. "In Silicon Valley, especially in technology, it's so easy to fall in the footsteps of others — to do what they do because you think it's the right way, because you think they've had the success and you can copy that success," said Dorsey. "You have to find your own path. You have to find your own footsteps."

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