Written by Fran Molloy
He’s the super-nerd that became the world’s richest man – and, more recently, a leading philanthropist already improving the lives of millions of the world’s poor.
What makes Bill Gates tick?
When Bill Gates became the richest guy in the world, complete with gorgeous wife, an army of devoted code-cutting minions and huge global influence, he changed the landscape for spotty teen geeks with a prodigious talent for maths and a stymied social calendar worldwide.
Suddenly, smart was cool; doing your homework and getting extra credit for your science project was a potential stepping-stone to dot-com dominance. But although there’s no doubt that Bill Gates is a gifted thinker with extraordinary talent – it’s not his ability with maths, his strong negotiating skills or even his understanding of computers that has driven his success.
The key to what has made Bill Gates great is his self-belief, his ability to come up with a vision of what he wants to achieve and his determination to overcome any obstacles to achieve that goal.
These days, Bill Gates is only the third richest guy in the world, worth about US $58 billion; something of a come-down from the heady years of 1995 to 2007, when he topped Forbes Magazine’s List of Billionaires.
And Gates is planning a strategic dive down the list, as he donates everincreasing amounts to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founded with wife Melinda in 2000, which is now the world’s largest transparently operated charitable foundation.
The Foundation received a heady boost when investment guru Warren Buffet, (who toppled Gates from his World’s Richest Man perch) signed a deal promising to kick in another US $1.5 billion a year.
Strategically focused on areas where it can do the most good, in typical Gates fashion, the Foundation (worth an estimated US $40 billion) divides its grants into three areas: Global Health, Global Development and local US programs.
The Global Health Program donates an estimated US$800 million each year – almost as much as the entire annual budget of the United Nations World Health Organization, which is funded by 192 countries.
Like many successful baby-boomers, the founder of software giant, Microsoft, decided in 2006 to down-shift to a part-time role within Microsoft, though he has remained as the company’s chairman.
He’s shifting to a full-time career in philanthropy; where he will devote his genius and much-admired business acumen to some of the world’s most intractable problems.
“We picked the big diseases as our priority,” he told the Seattle Times in a 2007 interview about the Foundation’s world goals.
“Whatever it takes we’re just going to stay at it. This is what we’re about. The big five are AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, respiratory and diarrhoea.” When Gates first discovered the impact that malaria had on world health, he was shocked to find that a $50 million grant that he made in 2001 doubled the international private donation to malaria work – while at the same time, research into baldness and erectile dysfunction were being funded to the tune of around $500 million a year.
But with the combined wealth, business connections and drive of Gates and Warren Buffett on its case, it is possible that malaria – humanity’s single biggest killer – may be eradicated as effectively as smallpox and polio.
While his drive and his determination are inspiring, most people who read about Bill Gates’ astounding success wonder, what has made this computer nerd such a prodigious force on the world stage?
The Bill Gates story has been told so often it has become legend.
Born in Seattle to a wealthy family, he was a high-achiever at school and by 13, had discovered computers. A joint venture with a few other students (including Paul Allen) to write computer programs at the age of 14 earned the group US $20,000.
Gates dropped out of Harvard Law School to found Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975. The pair was fascinated by the January 1975 report in ‘Popular Electronics’ magazine about the Altair 8800, one of the earliest microcomputers. He contacted the Altair’s designers and told them he and Allen were writing a BASIC program for the Altair – although they did not own an Altair and had certainly not written a program.
After the head of MITS (who produced the Altair) agreed to meet them, the pair developed a suitable program and negotiated a deal to distribute it with the microcomputer. The rest is history – the pair’s computer company, Microsoft, brokered a deal with IBM to distribute an operating system with the new IBM microcomputer but kept the licensing rights.
John Rymer heads the California branch of market research firm Forrester Research in California and has had a lot to do with Gates. “Gates is unique, a once-in-a-generation guy,” he told The Boston Globe in 2006.
Professor Allan Snyder heads the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, where his partners include Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson and Oliver Sacks – some of the world’s greatest minds.
The Centre is focused on scientific ways to enhance creativity and to instil what Professor Snyder calls “the champion mindset.”
He points out that many highfliers – Gates included – are university drop-outs. This doesn’t mean that they are not great geniuses; but rather that academic success is often no indication of genius.
Professor Snyder says that child prodigies, those who excel very quickly in life, seldom become adult geniuses, who do extraordinary things, challenging how we think.
But extraordinarily successful people like Gates do share certain personal qualities, he adds – they hate being ‘just average’ or normal or one of the pack, but want to stamp something uniquely them on everything they do.
“They want to creatively differentiate themselves from other people, they don’t want to be cogs in the wheel,” he explains. These champions are also willing to challenge convention and take risks and they are creative enough to “weave known knowledge into new knowledge,” he says.
“Great achievers have a vision that they will succeed and sometimes they even see the steps leading to their success,” says Professor Snyder. Andrew Meikle agrees; his research into elite human performance at The Meikle Files in East Sydney, where he has analysed the factors contributing to the success of more than 4000 people, reveals some common attributes that most high achievers share.
Potency of desire is one: high achievers know what they want and have a deep desire to achieve it; they are determined and passionate about their goals.
Meikle also concurs with Professor Snyder’s research on risk-taking, adding that high achievers have the courage to take on tasks beyond their skill set and the capacity to believe in their ideas
without proof. Bill Gates was able to envision a world where there was a personal computer on every desk – and also able to imagine himself as an integral part of that vision.
From his deals with IBM in 1980 to license the copyright of the MS-DOS operating system and its successors, to his ongoing aggressive strategy to increase the Microsoft dominance Gates has been single-minded in his business operations.
Sydney-based researcher Brent D Taylor recently released a book titled “The Outsider’s Edge: The Making of Self-made Billionaires,” which looked at the characteristics of people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey.
All of them triumphed over early adversity in a big way, he says – and all were outsiders, who didn’t fit in at school or other social situations.
“Gates was definitely not a hit with the girls when he was growing up,” Taylor says, adding that the young Gates was compulsive about being the best. But his real success comes from his skills as a businessman and his toughness as a negotiator, Taylor argues.
“Microsoft’s products are not revolutionary, and they are often not even the best available, but through his obsessiveness and drive Gates has pushed Microsoft to massive success,”
he says. “His negotiating skills have been the key to his extreme wealth.” And while he spent some time as the world’s least popular computer nerd, with his obsession, drive and sheer genius now applied to solving some of mankind’s most deadly health issues, it is possible that Bill Gates may have finally found the key to popularity.