Bill Gates is at it again. The world’s second-richest man spoke off-the-cuff recently about the key sacrifices he made while building Microsoft.
It’s a clear warning about what’s required, for anyone who wants to be highly successful.
My colleague Chris Matyszczyk wrote recently about how Gates’s described what he thinks of as Microsoft’s biggest failure: not building an alternative to Apple iOS before Android did.
But, that’s not really Gates’s mistake; he stepped down as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, and the iOS vs. Android battle didn’t even begin for years afterward.
As he reminds us, he had a very different way of running things, when he was in charge.
‘I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacations.’
Here’s what Gates says life was like for him at Microsoft, especially in the early days:
“I didn’t believe in weekends; I didn’t believe in vacations; I mean, I knew everybody’s license plate so I could tell you over the last month when their card had come and gone from the parking lot.
But yes, I have a fairly hardcore view that there should be a very large sacrifice made during those, those early years, particularly if you’re trying to do some engineering things that you have to get the feasibility.”
You’ll notice the elipses. There are parts of Gates’s remarks where he steps back a bit, and talks about how maybe this wasn’t all super-healthy. (I’ll include the full quote at the end of this article.)
It’s clear that at age 64, he wouldn’t want to live the life he was living at age 24 — when Microsoft was a scrappy startup — and perhaps he even has some regrets.
“You could over worship and mythologize the idea of working extremely hard,” he said, adding: “I don’t think most people would enjoy it.”
But then again, most people don’t drop out of Harvard like he did. Most people don’t go on to start the world’s largest and arguably most successful technology firm.
‘Why would you want to do that?’
There’s nothing new about this story, except perhaps that every few years when Gates gets the spotlight for telling it, another young generation is ready to hear it.
Microsoft was a high-stress environment because Bill drove others as hard as he drove himself.
Bob Greenberg, a Harvard classmate of Bill’s whom we’d hired, once put in 81 hours in four days, Monday through Thursday. … When Bill touched base toward the end of Bob’s marathon, he asked him, “What are you working on tomorrow?”
Bob said, “I was planning to take the day off.”
And Bill said, “Why would you want to do that?” He genuinely couldn’t understand it; he never seemed to need to recharge.
A few years ago I co-authored a book called Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, in which we interviewed a lot of young entrepreneurs. The story that hit me over and over was how many of them moved in together, worked almost constantly, and said they never would have been successful if they hadn’t been workaholics.
I’m not advocating for that. I think of myself as a very hard worker but I wouldn’t want to live like they do.
But you do have to ask yourself: Is that what my competition is doing?
The good news
Of course, there is a payoff. Gates stepped down as CEO in 2000; stepped down as chairman in 2014.
These days, Gates’s entire life is arguably one big vacation — a working vacation perhaps, but devoid of the kinds of pressures and stress that he put on himself back then.
He says he mellowed out by the time he was in his 30s. Given that he was born in 1955, let’s put the date at 1985.
The following year, according to a 2001 interview of Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Gates “built a four-house vacation compound dubbed Gateaway for his family.”
He also said in a Reddit AMA in 2017 that Australia and Brazil are among his favorite vacation spots.
But in the early days? No question. No vacations.
Here’s Gates’s full quote on weekends, vacations, and time off, as reported by TechCrunch:
I think you could over-worship and mythologize the idea of working extremely hard. For my particular makeup — and it really is true that I didn’t believe in weekends — I didn’t believe in vacations.
I mean, I knew everybody’s license plate so I could tell you over the last month when their card had come and gone from the parking lot. So, I don’t recommend it and I don’t think most people would enjoy it.
Once I got into my 30s, I could hardly even imagine how I had done that. Because by then, some natural behavior kicked in, and I loved weekends. And, you know, my girlfriend liked vacations. And that turned out to be kind of a neat thing.
Now I take lots of vacation. My 20-year-old self is so disgusted with my current self. You know, I was sure I would never fly anything but coach and you know, now I have a plane. So it’s very much counter revelations and taken place at high speed.
But yes, it is nice if during those first several years, you have a team that has chosen to be pretty maniacal about the company, and how far that goes, you should have a mutual understanding, so you’re not one person expecting one thing, and another person expecting another thing.
And you’ll have individuals who, who have, you know, health or relatives or things that [distract them]. But yes, I have a fairly hardcore view that there should be a very large sacrifice made during those, those early years, particularly if you’re trying to do some engineering things that you have to get the feasibility.
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