Bill Gates says he wishes his younger self knew there was “more to life than work”

When it comes to cultivating a work-life balance, it’s fair to say that Bill Gates has a few regrets. 

This month, the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist gave a speech at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. 

The ceremony was for graduates of the College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences, and the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences. 

The irony of a college dropout giving a graduation speech was not lost on Gates. He left Harvard after three semesters to start Microsoft. Still, he didn’t do too shabby in life: today Gates has a net worth of a whopping $125 billion. 

So what’s the reasoning behind the regrets?

In his speech, entitled “5 Things I Wish I Heard at the Graduation I Never Had,” Gates said he wishes he knew that there was a lot more to life than work. He talked at length about how his rigid work ethic had ruled his life, and that it took him a long time to even begin to realize that. 

Here are a handful of reflections on how the business magnate changed his outlook on life. 

1) In his early twenties, he didn’t believe in weekends or vacations 

When he was building Microsoft, Gates was a self-described workaholic. 

“I pushed everyone around me to work very long hours,” Gates said in his speech, referring to the early days of Microsoft. 

He expected the same work ethic from his employees and said that he used to take notes of which of his employees were working the longest hours daily and which ones left early. 

He said he realized too late that an all-consuming workload might lead to higher wages, but it could also get in the way of having a fulfilling life. 

“You are not a slacker if you cut yourself some slack,” he said. 

2) When he became a father, he saw more value in life

“As I got older—and especially once I became a father—I realized there is much more to life than work,” said. “Don’t wait as long as I did to learn this lesson. Take time to nurture your relationships, to celebrate your successes, and to recover from your losses.”

In an “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer session on Reddit back in 2014, Gates was asked how he’s changed over the past 20 years. He admitted that age has had a positive impact on his personality. 

“20 years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it—so I had energy and naïveté on my side,” he said. “Now hopefully I am a bit more mellow but with a little extra wisdom.”

3) He urged the importance of “having fun” and taking it easy on the people around you

This particular commencement speech isn’t the first time Gates has said this. 

In 2007, he gave a commencement speech at Harvard University where he talked about how the most important accomplishment wasn’t the “result” or the “final product,” or the hard work—but actually the environment that nurtured and allowed him to succeed. 

“I worked day and night on this little extra credit project that marked the end of my college education and the beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft,” he said at the time. “What I remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so much energy and intelligence.”

“It could be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging.” 

4) He wishes he had been (a lot) more social

In a speech at Harvard in 2018, Gates told students that he wishes he had been more sociable in college.

When he wasn’t attending classes and lectures, he was studiously studying. This left little room for building friendships, he said. 

“I wish I had gotten to know more people. I was just so into being good at the classes and taking lots of classes.”

He continued:

“The people you’ve [socialized] with and sat next to in lectures are not just your classmates,” he said at the time. “They are your network. Your future co-founders and colleagues. Your best sources of support, information and advice.”

Gates’ high school self must have known this on some level because his oldest friend Paul Allen would become Microsoft co-founder. 

And his social life in college wasn’t completely a lost cause either: one of his few friends from Harvard, Steve Ballmer, became his successor as Microsoft CEO. 

Ballmer was especially extroverted and during their sophomore year at Harvard, he helped Gates get into one of the university’s all-male social clubs—making the cut of 200 others who wanted to get in.

“I was so antisocial, I never would have even known that [social clubs] existed, but Steve Ballmwe decided I needed to have some exposure to, I guess, drinking,” he said with amusement at the time. 

“He got me punched through the Fox Club,” Gates continued in reference to the selection process that was required. “So I would go to those events, and that was highly educational.”

This past March, Gates shared what he calls the best piece of advice he’s ever received about friendship, something that came from his longtime friend, Warren Buffett: “In the end, it’s how friends think of you and how strong those friendships are [that matters],” Buffett told him. 

5) He encouraged the graduates not to think of life as a “one-act play”

Nothing lasts forever, and Gates wanted the graduates at Northern Arizona University this month to know that they didn’t have to make concrete decisions about their life at the beginning of their careers.

“It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not,” he said. 

Gates remembers facing the same pressure as a student. In 1975, when he co-founded Microsoft, he assumed that he would spend the rest of his life working there. But he said he’s “so glad” about how wrong he was.

Life is full of twists and turns. The point is to go in the direction of growth, both personally and professionally. 

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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