Bill Gates never finished his undergraduate degree — the billionaire dropped out of Harvard University after three semesters to start Microsoft.
“What does a college dropout know about graduation? Not much, personally, to be honest,” Gates told students at Northern Arizona University’s commencement ceremony on Saturday.
“As I prepared for today, I spent a lot of time thinking about how you, as new graduates, can have the biggest impact on the world with the education you received here,” Gates said. “That led me to thinking about … the advice I was never given on a day just like this one.”
If Gates had finished college, these are “the five things I wish I was told at the graduation I never had,” he said.
‘Your life isn’t a one-act play’
“You’re probably facing a lot of pressure right now to make the right decisions about your career,” Gates said. “It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not.”
Gates recalled battling this same pressure when he was a student. When he co-founded Microsoft in 1975, he thought that “I would work there for the rest of my life,” he said.
He’s “so glad” that he was wrong about that, he added.
Gates did work at Microsoft for a long time: He was the company’s CEO until 2000, and board director until 2014. “Today, I still work on software, but philanthropy is my full-time job,” he said, referencing his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he co-founded with his ex-wife Melinda French Gates.
The foundation has issued $65.6 billion in grant payments since 2000, focusing largely on global issues like climate change, gender equality and health care, according to its website.
It’s a “good thing” to reevaluate yourself and your goals, even if they don’t align with what you originally imagined, Gates noted.
‘You are never too smart to be confused’
Even the co-founder of a multi-trillion dollar company learns new things daily. It wasn’t always that way: When Gates dropped out of college, he said, he thought he knew everything.
Eventually, he realized that “the first step to learning something new is leaning into what you don’t know, instead of focusing on what you do know,” he said.
Gates advised students to do the same.
“At some point in your career, you will find yourself facing a problem you cannot solve on your own,” he said. “When that happens, don’t panic. Take a breath. Force yourself to think things through. And then find smart people to learn from.”
You can find these smart people in the workplace, on professional networking sites or among your peers, he added. His advice for getting that help: Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
‘Gravitate towards work that solves a problem’
Gates was responsible for the largest known charitable donation of 2022, giving $5 billion of his own money to the Gates Foundation to back its work. Unsurprisingly, he encouraged students to take opportunities to help others.
“You are graduating at a time of immense opportunity to help people,” he said. “New industries and companies are emerging every day that will allow you to make a living by making a difference. And advances in science and technology have made it easier than ever to make a big impact.”
The opportunities are endless, Gates said: Students they could fight climate change as foresters or help people benefit from artificial intelligence as programmers.
“When you spend your days doing something that solves a big problem, it energizes you to do your best work,” he said. “It forces you to be more creative, and it gives your life a stronger sense of purpose.”
‘Don’t underestimate the power of friendship’
One of Gates’ biggest college regrets, he told Harvard students in 2018: Not being sociable enough. He spent most of his time in class or studying, leaving little room for building friendships.
On Saturday, Gates advised recent graduates to keep valuing the connections they made throughout college.
“The people you’ve [socialized] with and sat next to in lectures are not just your classmates. They are your network,” he said. “Your future co-founders and colleagues. Your best sources of support, information, and advice. The only thing more valuable than what you walk offstage with today is who you walk onstage with.”
Some of Gates’ oldest friends have played crucial parts in his life. His high school friend Paul Allen became his Microsoft co-founder. One of his few college friends, Steve Ballmer, became his successor as Microsoft CEO.
In March, Gates even said that the best piece of advice he’s ever received was about friendship — and it came from his longtime friend and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett.
“In the end, it’s how friends really think of you and how strong those friendships are [that matters],” Gates recalled Buffett telling him.
‘You are not a slacker if you cut yourself some slack’
Working hard can lead to increased pay or a climb up the corporate ladder, but you shouldn’t do it at the expense of living your life. Gates learned that lesson too late, he said.
“When I was your age, I didn’t believe in vacations. I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe the people I worked with should either,” he said. He even tracked his Microsoft employees, noting who stayed in the office late and who left early.
It took becoming a dad for him to realize “there’s more to life than work,” he noted.
“Don’t wait as long as I did to learn this lesson,” he said. “Take time to nurture your relationships. To celebrate your successes. And to recover from your losses. Take a break when you need to. Take it easy on the people around you when they need it, too.”
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