I don’t do hero worship. I just don’t see any advantage to it. I want to recognize and learn from people’s mistakes instead of only seeing their wisdom. Further, hero worship too easily lends itself to unrealistic expectations of yourself and others.
I do, however, value experience — particularly experience that provides a unique perspective from which to see the world. If you have that experience and the ability to explain your perspective clearly and concisely, you have earned my respect.
Bill Gates has my respect. From Microsoft to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the man has had an impressive set of experiences. And it shows in the quotes of his that have spread across the internet.
Here are a few of my favorites and why I love them. I’ve grouped some of them by topic to make the discussion easier.
On Success and Failure
“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” — Bill Gates
“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” — Bill Gates
I have written extensively about failure. Failure is simply the greatest tool in the entrepreneur’s toolbox, and there is much we can learn from failure.
I have not, however, written much about success. I certainly celebrate my successes. You may even find them mentioned in the introductions of my stories, but they are rarely the focal points.
Why is that?
It’s because we don’t learn from success. In interviews, I often hear questions like “To what do you attribute your success?” And yes, Guy Raz — as much as I love your podcast — I am calling you out on this one. It’s just not that useful of a question.
What have I learned from my successes? I’ve learned that a very specific and almost certainly unrepeatable set of decisions and circumstances will lead to things going right.
That’s a useless piece of knowledge.
If I can recreate 90% of those decisions and circumstances, will I succeed again? I don’t know.
But it is from failures that we learn what is important. Whenever you hear someone talking about what they learned from their success, listen closely. You’ll find that there was always a failure — averted or otherwise — that was actually behind the lesson.
“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” — Bill Gates
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” — Bill Gates
“Who decides what’s in Windows? The customers who buy it.” — Bill Gates
“If all my bridge coach ever told me was that I was ‘satisfactory,’ I would have no hope of ever getting better. How would I know who was the best? How would I know what I was doing differently?” — Bill Gates
We love to hear what we are doing right. Go on, leave me a positive comment on this post and see if I like it. I’ll wait for you to do that and scroll back before I finish my point.
Done? Good. Let’s continue.
Positive feedback is not a bad thing. We need to know what we are doing right. But we also need to know what we are doing wrong. And you don’t get that from positive feedback. You need to hear the negatives.
I never leave a feedback session without insisting that they tell me something that I’m doing wrong. And believe me, there is always something.
As entrepreneurs, we especially need to hear from our customers. And these conversations have to go beyond simply asking them what they want or need. We need to understand the underlying problems they are trying to solve. We are the experts in the solution, but only they can help us understand what challenges we are building the solution for.
On Gradual Change and Staying Motivated
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” — Bill Gates
Change rarely occurs all at once. Worse, it often happens slowly at first, only speeding up after it has been percolating for weeks, months, or even years.
We are all guilty of being metric hawks, watching every minute of the day for the uptick that we expect to happen.
When the impact takes longer than we expect, we lose hope. It’s hard to motivate ourselves to do something today if we won’t see the effect until the distant future. We — and I mean all of humanity — suffer from severe recency bias when it comes to focus and motivation.
“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” — Bill Gates
I put this one right after gradual change for a reason. If we are trying to drive change that is years or decades away, we need basic research to make that happen.
On Working Smarter
“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” — Bill Gates
Hard work is overrated. Productivity is always superior to busyness. If I look back over my career, my most productive weeks are rarely the ones in which I worked the hardest.
Automation, creative solutioning, and smart planning can often get a job done better and more efficiently than pure hard work. There’s a popular quote in the coding world: “Weeks of programming can save you hours of planning”.
On Teaching and Technology
“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” — Bill Gates
I’m a technologist. As such, I am guilty of often overestimating the abilities of technology. You can blame it on the sci-fi books I read as a kid. They always featured cool ways that technology was improving people’s lives, but the human factor was almost always either underplayed or spun into a dystopian influence.
When I think back to my education, the most important factors were people. Teachers, classmates, and mentors did far more for me than any device. I’m very much in favor of education technology. However, there are only two things I can — with certainty — say will be part of the classroom of tomorrow: students and teachers.
“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” — Bill Gates
What makes a good leader? Is it a strong vision? Tactical thinking? Strategic analysis?
Those are all signs of a good businessman, planner, or entrepreneur. A leader, though, is only as good as their ability to lead. It’s right there in the name.
Bosses are not leaders. Bosses give orders while leaders inspire action. Leaders don’t think of you as a cog in their machine. They know you as what you are: a living being with unique insights, abilities, and values.
A leader’s goal is not to mold you into another version of themselves that can tow the company line. Rather, it’s to empower you to become the best version of yourself.
“I really had a lot of dreams when I was a kid, and I think a great deal of that grew out of the fact that I had a chance to read a lot.” — Bill Gates
If you haven’t seen the book recommendation lists that Bill Gates often puts out, I highly suggest you look them up. The man has good taste, and he is always reading.
I truly believe that all the reading I did as a child heavily influenced my creativity and empathy as an adult, two of the skills that I value the most in myself.
Books get you to step outside of what is and live — even for just a moment — in what could be.
They put you in the mindset of the author or the narrating character. They cause you to express another person’s thoughts as if they were your own. You can’t influence the character, but you can certainly try to guess their next actions or thoughts. And — if you can master it — that is a powerful ability.
On Goals and Continuous Improvement
“If I’d had some set idea of a finish line, don’t you think I would have crossed it years ago?” — Bill Gates
“I am not in competition with anyone but myself. My goal is to improve myself continuously.” — Bill Gates
I recently wrote an article about how I’ve changed my thinking on goals over the past several years that I encourage you to read for my thoughts on this important matter.
Gates has accomplished things in his life that most of us will only ever dream of. But he never completed his life-long goals because his life — as he so eloquently put it — doesn’t have a finish line.
Continuous improvement is as good a goal as any I’ve ever seen. And it can be done without comparison to others, making it much better for your mental health.
On Strategy and Execution
“A bad strategy will fail no matter how good your information is, and lame execution will stymie a good strategy. If you do enough things poorly, you will go out of business.” — Bill Gates
It all comes down to execution. Ideas, strategy, research, and vision are all great things to have, but nothing matters without good execution.
On Being Proactive
Treatment without prevention is simply unsustainable. — Bill Gates
I adore this quote. It’s usually more efficient to be proactive rather than reactive, but who has the time when there is patchwork to be done?
Video games taught me the importance of proactive tasks.
Boss battles often have you fighting one massive enemy that spawns smaller enemies. Sometimes, you have to be reactive, taking out these smaller enemies to avoid them overwhelming you. (Sound familiar?)
But killing these smaller enemies will not make a long-term difference if you don’t take out the larger creature spawning them. If you can’t find the time to be proactive, you’ll be fighting those spawned enemies for all of eternity (or at least until bedtime).
I hope you find these quotes as thought-provoking as I do.
This post has been more of a hodge-podge of ideas than what I usually write. Because of that, I don’t have a unified theme to sum it all up here at the end.
Instead, I will leave you with this, one of my favorite quotes about quotes.
“In quoting others, we cite ourselves.” — Julio Cortazar