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


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.”

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