Bill Gates Went Back to His High School and Talked About the Secrets to Success. Here’s What He Said

October 31, 2019, 11:30 AM UTC
Bill Gates surrounded by computers in 1983.
Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates in 1983 (Photo by © Doug Wilson/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Photograph by Doug Wilson—Corbis/Getty Images)

By any number of metrics, Bill Gates knows a thing or two about success. As a teenager, he founded Microsoft, now one of (and often the) most valuable publicly traded companies in the world. His foundation is the largest private charitable organization of its kind. Remarkably, he has only graduated from one institution: that would be Lakeside School, the Seattle prep school where he was class of ’73. (Though he attended Harvard, he dropped out after in the spring of his sophomore year).

It was at Lakeside where a young Bill met Paul Allen, two years older and equally intrigued by the new teletype terminal the school had just acquired, thanks to funds from the Lakeside Mothers Club’s annual rummage sale. Gates and Allen, logging long hours at the machine, formed a programming group and quickly became the experts—so much so that Lakeside’s administrators asked the two to write software to computerize the entire school’s scheduling, a painstaking and laborious process that for each of the fifty previous years had taken all summer to do manually.

The friendship, cemented by those hours spent side by side in the basement of McAllister Hall, would lead the two to start Microsoft, and Gates and Allen always retained their ties to the school that gave them free rein on this bulky, mysterious box.

Earlier this month Gates returned to Lakeside to help celebrate the school’s 100th anniversary. He spoke to an audience of 1,500 about specialization and the curious mind. And why, though his life has been devoted to tech, he still greatly believes in the value of a liberal arts education.

On curiosity

Gates said that being curious, knowing what you are and aren’t good at and keeping an optimistic attitude are attributes that will take kids far. These qualities are the same that propelled him, what he looks for in people who work at Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and what he thinks the current generation needs in a growing world of technology, artificial intelligence and global challenge. 

“For the curious learner, these are the best of times,” Gates said, “because your ability to constantly refresh your knowledge with either podcasts or [online] lectures is better than ever.” But crucially, he said, it’s important to have a basic framework of knowledge in the liberal arts and a growth mindset, “so you can take the various things, like government policies you should have a view on and be able to understand them with a sense of history, with a sense of the resources required.”

On democracy

“Democracy is going to more and more require participation,” the Microsoft founder said, and “during the decades ahead, the digital revolution will surprise us.” Gates said that artificial intelligence will move into unexpected frontiers and that “a key metric is that sense of self-confidence as a learner, a willingness to keep learning and then foundational knowledge, ideally including the sciences.” Gates said that a lot of change that will take place in the immediate decades, such as climate change and resource allocation, “have to be informed by an understanding of the sciences.”

On delegating

Since early adulthood, Gates had a keen understanding of both what he was good at—programming—and what he was less good at—social interaction. Because of this awareness, he was often able to outsource or bring in people with other skill sets. “A lot of founders like their hands-on work, you know, writing code,” he said. “As Microsoft grew, it did require a lot of adjustment. Initially, I wrote most of the code and if I didn’t, I read your code and edited it. And the idea that we would ship code that I hadn’t looked at seemed very strange, like the quality was going to go down.”

“Bringing in Steve Ballmer, who really liked management and people, that was a huge benefit and I hired lots of very experienced people,” Gates said. “The first president I hired didn’t work out, the second president I was so shy about trying to hire him, I had to send one of my board members to tell [Radio Shack’s Jon Shirley] I wanted to hire him because I thought he might laugh when I said it.”

Gates said that while he had become a very specialized person who only spent time on the one thing he was very good at, his curiosity about these other areas forced him to expand. “I did need to learn new things and my crutch was I could hire in really amazing people and as long as I cared about learning that thing, like, ok, a sales force, how do you do that?” 

On mistakes and failure

Still, Gates acknowledged that many times, he has waited too long to chart a new area of growth—in part because of his basic sense of optimism and confidence that things will work out. Once he decided to leave Harvard and throw himself into the nascent world of software, “then I was just so all in. The question of how quickly did I hire people, could I pay their salaries, how did our engineering system work, I didn’t have much hesitation. But the notion of how you would hire serious business people, that was a little bit…I probably waited too long to do that. The idea of having people who would make sure our relationship with the government was good, I waited way too long to do that.” 

But he describes the trajectory of Microsoft—and later, the foundation—as one driven by the mentality of “a very optimistic attitude,” which is another key component of success. In a sense, Gates said, it’s good to have blinders on. Having some success under one’s belt can paper over temporary failure and keep momentum going. 

“Inside Microsoft were all sorts of failures, like we didn’t ship Windows for two years later after we announced it, but there were enough successes that it was really ok, we could afford to be very risk-oriented. In the foundation now, one of our great projects is to create an HIV vaccine and we will get one, but I would have thought we would have had one by now and yet, it’s probably still eight years away,” Gates said. 

On his secrets to success

More than anything, Gates also describes himself as “a curious learner” and famously carries a duffel bag of books with him wherever he goes. Oh, and the other necessary ingredient to success? Sleep. The billionaire philanthropist said he counts “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker as the book that recently has had the most influence on him.

Gates described himself and his focus as “monomaniacal” in his 20s as he was building Microsoft. He didn’t take a weekend off until he was in his 30s and it was a few years after that when he started to actually take a vacation. Now 64, he realized the importance of sleep relatively recently.

You want to be like Bill Gates? Read. And get some sleep.

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