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A Dozen Lessons I Learned from Bill Gates Sr.


Bill Gates Sr. is one of three mentors I have had that were actually appointed by a group to help me develop as a person. I have had other mentors that I recruited or the relationship just developed. What Bill taught me was not only important but inevitably delivered at just the time I needed the guidance most. Other than my parents, who attended college with Bill and his first wife Mary, no one has had more influence on who I am. I probably never go through a day where I do not think subconsciously at least once: “What Would Bill Gates Sr., do in this situation?” Having Bill Gates Sr. be your mentor is the equivalent of being able to start a career and life at third base. Bloody hell was I lucky. Set out below are a dozen of the many things he taught me.

  1. “I am an optimist.” He is always optimistic and forward thinking. The only time I ever saw him less that fully optimistic was at a lunch right after his wife Mary died. That day at the restaurant he said emphatically as tears poured down his cheeks: “I will never marry again,” which goes to show that he is not always right since he married Mimi Gardner Neill about a year later.
  1. “There’s power in sharing stories.” The holiday card Bill sends each year and the corny poems he traditionally recites at events are all about storytelling. Bill also uses stories when talking to clients to who looked to him for wisdom as much as they did legal advice.  This reminds me of the great story about his son who said after being chided about being slow getting into the car for a family event: “I’m thinking, mother. Don’t you ever think?” Bill once recalled that day in this way: “Imagine yourself in our place. I was in the most demanding years of my law practice. I was a dad, a husband, doing all the things parents in families do. My wife, Mary, was raising three kids, volunteering for the United Way, and doing a million other things. And your child asks you if you ever take time to think.” 
  1. “A start-up business is just virtually 100 percent devotion both in time and energy.” Together with a few other people Bill built both a fine law firm and a solid business. Like most businesses the law firm was not a Microsoft class grand slam financial outcome, but it was a fantastic result nevertheless. The vast majority of businesses are more like the law firm Bill created than Microsoft, Facebook or Google. 
  1. “As conflicts arise between parents and children from common causes, the whole business of exerting independence, fighting against discipline, that’s an experience we had, and it was one that was particularly the case with my son and his mother for a period of a couple of years. It obviously worked itself out at a very early date. An interesting piece of that was the consultant that we went to and talked to about this. Mary and I would go in, and our son would go in and talk to this fellow. This went on for a better part of a year and a half. Toward the end, Mary and I were there for a meeting with him, and he said, ‘You have this war going on with your son — you really should understand that he’s gonna win.'”  Pick your battles and especially your wars.


  1. “Woody Allen said, ‘Eighty percent of success is showing up.’ And, I believe that.  If you’re on a board, a committee of some kind, and you go to a meeting and nobody else showed up… You support causes by showing up and, obviously, participating.”  It is stunning how many boards, committees and groups Bill has participated in over his career. His influence is everywhere you look in Seattle and, if you look at the influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world.  As just one illustrative example, in the early 1980s he involved me in an effort to move technology from the University of Washington to the private sector. The Washington Research Foundation was organized in 1981 and the Washington Technology Center two years later to foster the transfer of technology from university researchers to commercial businesses. He knew then that it is the positive spillovers a great research university that drives the economic and cultural vibrancy of a city. Having the opportunity to watch him operate in that setting was life changing in terms of developing my skills.
  1. “I believe in the combined power of men and women who ‘show up’ for the people they love and the causes they believe in.” The whole of people’s participation in a cause is worth more than the sum of the parts when it comes to “showing up.” Bill believes that everyone who has been fortunate in life needs to do something to counteract what he calls the “disadvantages that random chance has imposed on others.”
  1. “Society works better when people think less about ‘me and mine’ and more about ‘us and ours’.” “We’re all in this together.” Making this point is best done by looking at two examples. The first example concerns the United Way campaign which is always an important activity in the life of Bill Gates. He understands the power of people helping others in a community. His enthusiasm causes other people to become involved and that snowballs. The second example involves an after work basketball team that I played on with Bill. He played center and I was a guard on that team since I am a full foot shorter than he is  (which is why I always wanted to be like him when I “grew” up). He was an unselfish player more concerned with making a great pass than scoring himself. On this team and in other settings he was always thinking about “us and ours” and not “me and mine.”
  1. “I’ve seen the power of public will to take on and surmount great challenges.” “I don’t care if you carry a banner or if you stand near the back. You can yell into a microphone if you like or you can listen carefully if that’s your style. You don’t need a soapbox to be a good citizen, you just need to be part of the public will to make life on this planet a little better.” How can you say it better than that? When Bill turned 90 years young in 2015 his birthday party held at the University of Washington was attended by many luminaries. Over the course of his career he helped many people and numerous stories were told at that event about his positive impact on their lives. A book of memories was produced for that event in his honor.  In one memorable chapter in that book Howard Schultz wrote that without Bill’s help in dealing with an unscrupulous character he would not have been able to buy Starbucks. If Seattle has a George Bailey equivalent (a lead character in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”) it would be Bill Gates Sr.
  1. “I’ve experienced the fear of being poor, the exhilaration of working hard to build a career.” “Dad was very hard-working – he had a partnership in a furniture store, worked very hard, worked long hours. And I learned from seeing that.” “My parents never talked about showing up. They just did it.” There wasn’t a lot of structure to my growing up. I had an awful lot of discretion about where I went, what I did, who I did it with.” The way children are organized today by parents is quite different than what Bill experienced. One thing this upbringing did was force him to learn from mistakes since he had lots of chances to make them. I can’t help think that this experience is a significant part of why Bill has such sound judgment. Bill was on the board of directors of Costco with Charlie Munger who is an advocate of learning from mistakes. Charlie said once: “We look like people who have found a trick. It’s not brilliance. It’s just avoiding stupidity.” Bill contributed to my personal development in many ways not the least of which was the idea of sound judgment. “Ready, aim fire” not “Ready, fire, aim.”
  1. “Hard work, getting along, honoring a confidence and speaking out.” These are the attributes I saw in him as a business leader and community volunteer. He polished each attribute that he learned as a boy scout under scoutmaster Dorm Brahman. He did not forget those lessons. I remember once seeing him tie a fancy knot on a speedboat at his home on Hood Canal (you can take a boy out of scouting, but not take scouting out of the boy).
  1. “You should never demean your child. When you think about the centrality of that, in terms of the relationship with an offspring, you’re off to a really good start.” The centrality of his family in everything Bill does is an inspiration.  The way the family operates as a team is also marvelous to watch.
  1. “For all the rewards of private life, my life would have been much the poorer if I had not experienced those moments when I felt like I belonged to something larger.” There is arguably no organization where he has had more impact that the University of Washington. And the reverse is also true. There is a biographical article about Bill entitled: “Mighty are those that wear the purple and the gold.” He is mighty indeed. Go Huskies!

Biography: Bill Gates Sr. earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Washington, following three years of military service. A founding partner at Shilder, McBroom, Gates and Baldwin, Gates has served as president of both the Seattle/King County Bar Association and the Washington State Bar Association. He has served as trustee, officer, and volunteer for more than two dozen Northwest organizations, including the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and King County United Way. In 1995, he founded the Technology Alliance, a cooperative regional effort to expand technology-based employment in Washington. Gates also has been a strong advocate for education for many years, chairing the Seattle Public School Levy Campaign in 1971 and serving as a member of the University of Washington’s Board of Regents from 1997-2012.


Mighty are those that Wear the Purple and the Gold http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns-magazine/june-2013/features/gates/

Showing Up for Life  https://www.amazon.com/Showing-Up-Life-Thoughts-Lifetime/dp/0385527020/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1495307985&sr=8-1&keywords=Bill+gates+sr

Whitman Commencement Speech http://www.networkworld.com/article/2279854/data-center/lessons-from-bill-gates–dad–whitman-college-commencement-speech.html

Showing Up http://www.law.washington.edu/Multimedia/2009/ShowingUp/Transcript.aspx

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