Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime" by Bill Gates Sr.

"Eighty Percent of Success is Showing up."
Woody Allen, Comedian, Writer, Director, Oscar Winner

This is going to be a quick review, because it really was a quick read, but packed with great insights. I decided to grab this book a while ago after seeing a terrific interview with Bill Gates (Junior) and his dad (Senior) on Charlie Rose last year. Around the time everyone was raving about Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell's latest in a string of Bestsellers) here was the perfect example to prove Gladwell's point. 

Gladwell told the story of Bill Gates' life in great detail, outlining just how very impossibly lucky this kid was. But not only did he go to the right schools and live in the right town, he also had the right parents. And I think it's worth exploring how someone who works incredibly hard, and has made a lots of right moves, got a lot of that from his parents.

"Showing Up for Life" is not a Biography at all. It reads more like a letter from Senior to his family: each of his children, and his two wives (sadly, both were taken by terminal illnesses). Bill's maternal mother Mary, contributed a great deal to Bill's incredibly competitive nature. Early on, the Gates family, along with five other families, would head to wilderness for camping trips. Because they pooled their resources together, they were able to secure a cabin on the lake, where everyone could play games, and hold competitions of all sorts. Competition drove almost every aspect of life, whether they were playing capture the flag at Camp Cheerio, or playing a game of cards to see who got to skip out on washing dishes after supper. Mary had a knack for bringing fun to whatever they were doing.

That's a big deal. We sometimes think of these incredibly successful Entrepreneurs and think only in terms of dollar signs. We forget that this was the funnest thing in the world for them. In the Early Microsoft days, coding MS DOS for 12 hrs straight, then grabbing some pizza with your friends before going right back to the office again was really fun. Hey, they were geeks.

Also, to Gladwell's point, the charitable work that Bill and Melinda Gates are now doing did not start with Bill Jr. Some people, myself included, assumed he was an egomaniac, or was doing it because he felt guilty about his dominance in the PC market. Some even believe he just wants a Nobel Peace prize. But those people can't fully understand Bill Gates Jr, unless they first understand the man he strives to be: Senior had been involved with charities long before Bill Gates ever met MS co-Founder Paul Allen. In fact, Mary often asked her young children how much of their allowance they planned to give to charity.  

I thought it was amazing that Mary actually knew the CEO of IBM in the mid-80's, through their joint work with United Way. When he first heard about a little company in Seattle called Microsoft, he remarked, "Oh, that's Mary Gates' boy." And when Bill married Melinda in 1994 (up to that point, she was a product manager at Microsoft) her 'new job' became working on the charitable foundation full time.

And the idea of giving everything away goes a lot farther back than Bill Gates Sr. This would not be the first time Bill Gates was compared to John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the greatest Oil tycoon there ever was, getting in at the turn of the 20th century, and ultimately becoming one of the greatest Philanthropists there ever was too. His legacy, passed down from generation to generation, is everywhere, from Malaria research to working on AIDS treatment, and helping famers in third world countries grow more bountiful crops. Everywhere Bill went, he saw the Rockefeller name. 

I don't want this to turn into a story about Bill Gates, because it's not. All the children are incredibly successful, which is kind of staggering. Bill Senior and Mary, and the way they chose to expose their children to new ideas, and new experiences, are the real story. And though Bill Senior, a lawyer by trade, was always finically well-off, they never seemed to let it go to their heads. In fact, there isn't a trace of ego anywhere with any of these guys

I found something striking with Bill Senior: being Christians and very rich, you would think they were fighting new tax bills left and right, as many talking heads on Network TV do. But if anything the Gates family is fighting for more taxes, every chance they get. Bill Senior actually got his start, when he returned from World War 2. The American recovery plan contained something called the GI Bill, which promised to pay for all those who served in WW2 to go to College. It was thought to be costly and extravagant at the time, but it worked: filling the offices and companies with young bright minds which would put America on a path to unprecedented growth. The Marshall plan was also widely criticized; the plan would put money forward to help America's allies recover from the ravages of War, but contributed to a sense of community and stability around the world.

These are two big pieces of legislation Senior picked out to demonstrate his inspiration for 'giving back.' And that's basically what a tax is: giving back to those who paid for the schools, the roads, the police departments that created the society in which you could, say, start a tech company. 

When I said I don't detect a hint of Ego in these guys, its more like, the Ego has grown. Sometimes we say 'WE' to mean our family, or our favorite team, or our city, or even our country (like in the World Cup). But what happens when it grows beyond that to mean the whole world? You feel pain when people on the other side of the world are hurting. Maybe that's why giving away 20 billion dollars, isn't just a 'nice thing to do' for these guys; but rather, it looks like so much fun.

"Dad, the next time someone asks if you're the real Bill Gates, I hope you say 'Yes.' I hope you tell them you're all the things the other one strives to be" 
Bill Gates Jr. Philanthropist, Technokid


zero said...
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zero said...
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Rolodexter said...

I'm having a hard time finding a reason to actually buy into this. It's just really self righteous. You get this self righteous priestly feel to the way he phrases things, like "good family life." "Getting it done right." And a lot of false humility. And Bill Gate's "forward," it's a like 150 characters. It's a less than a paragraph. The publisher's milking this one to its bloody pulpy ends.