What Superpower Do Billionaires Want?

In September 2005, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett visited the University of Nebraska to talk to students and faculty.

During the Q&A, one of the students asked the two: “If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?”

After some deliberation, the Bill settled on the skill: “the ability to be able to read super fast.” Warren added that he probably wasted ten years of his life compared to Bill because of his slower reading abilities.

For years I have tried all kinds of gimmicks to increase my reading speed. While I made some advances it still fell short of my expectations for three predominant reasons:

  1. The faster I attempted to read the less material I absorbed
  2. It required 100% of my focus — limiting how long I could read before I got burned out
  3. After a certain point, speed reading would be better-defined as speed skimming

Did you know that the average person can listen twice as fast as they can talk? The limiting factor isn’t our ears or our brain’s ability to process the information, but the speed by which our mouths can move to produce the sounds to make speech.

On average, professional podcasters speak at about 150 words per minute, while the average reading speed is ~200 words per minute. So by increasing the audio speed to 2x a person can listen 50% faster than they can read.

While reading 50% faster is nice, with a little bit of practice we can go much faster than that. In one study, researchers tested the listening speed of blind participants and calculated that they could listen over 4x the normal talking speed. Brain scans showed that they were using part of their brain that was previously allocated for site, to process audio information, allowing them to listen at ultrafast speeds.

This is because of the amazing ability of neuroplasticity which allows our brains to continuously adapt to the demands of our ever-changing circumstances. Scientist used to think that each part of the brain was solely responsible for a single set of functions, but it was later discovered that the brain was much more malleable and could optimize itself as needed by each individual.

We now live in a world where the amount of information and content that is available is growing exponentially and our ability to process that information needs to be enhanced so we can keep up with the growing demand on our attention. To meet these challenges, our brains can adapt to process information faster through speed listening.

Most people who are avid podcast subscribers probably experimented with increasing the audio speed, and quickly found out that they can listen much faster than they thought. At first, it may seem strange but with some practice, it is very achievable for even sighted individuals to expand their listening abilities from 1x to 1.5x to 2x and even 3x or beyond the normal audio speed.

Text to speech is a technology that just like it sounds turns text to audible speech. If you have an iOS device you can play around with a functionality called Voiceover, which will read you the text on your screen.

Voiceover has a speed adjustment setting that goes from ~150 words per minute to 700+ words per minute. While it requires some practice, being able to listen at 700 words per minute makes you 3.5x faster than the average reader. And unlike speed reading, it doesn’t require the demand of your eyes and you won’t just be skimming the text either.

While listening at 700 words per minute will make you feel like a superhero, it does come with the initial sacrifice of getting used to a robotic voice. But if you are willing to push past that hurdle you will be astonished how much more productive you can be by speed listening. And honestly, after a short amount of time and the faster you push yourself the less noticeable the voice becomes.

So Bill, Warren, if you want to increase your reading speed just start speed listening.