Bill Gates says you should have a life outside of work—these are his 10 reasons why

If there’s one thing the Great Resignation of the pandemic taught us, it’s that we need to have a work-life balance to live a mentally healthy and fulfilling life.

Highly successful and ambitious people often learn this the hard way. By his own admission, the American business magnate Bill Gates shared that he wishes he hadn’t been such a workaholic when he was building his computer software company, Microsoft. 

Here are ten reasons Gates says that a life outside of work is essential for optimal health and a fulfilling lifestyle. 

1) You could be putting your health in hazard 

In his thirties and forties, Gates says he was highly competitive—even when it came to sleep.

In an episode of his podcast, “Unconfuse Me with Bill Gates”, featuring Seth Rogan and Lauren Miller Rohan, Gates said that he would compete with his peers to see who got the least amount of rest—he said that he considered lack of sleep as a marker of productivity. 

“[I] would be like, ‘I only sleep six hours.’ And the other guy says, ‘I only sleep five!’” Gates related in the podcast. 

The 67-year-old thought he needed to be like his peers. “I’d be like, ‘Wow those guys are so good. I need to try harder, because sleep is laziness and unnecessary,’” he said. 

Gates began to look at things in a different way after his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. 

“One of the strongest things to emerge in [the Alzheimer’s] area is the importance of good sleep,” Gates said. “It’s one of the most predictive factors of any dementia, including Alzheimer’s, whether you’re getting good sleep.”

2) Having a life partner changes things…

Gates said he realized he had to lighten up on his “fanatic” work pace in part when he met his future-wife, Melinda. 

“Eventually I had to loosen up, as the company got to a reasonable size,” he told the BBC in 2016. 

“[Melinda] arrived at kind of the perfect time, and we fell in love…I’m sure myself in my twenties would look at my schedule now and find it very wimpy indeed.”

3) …so does being a parent  

During his commencement speech at North Arizona University this past May, Gates told a group of graduates that he didn’t realize until he got older and became a father that there was more to life than ambition. 

“As I got older—and especially once I became a father—I realized there is more to life than work,” he 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.”

4) Everyone needs to recharge now and again 

Gates admits that in the beginning, he truly did not have any need to recharge or have some downtime—and that he had the same exact expectations for his employees. 

“When I was your age, I didn’t believe in vacations,” he said in his speech. “I didn’t believe in weekends. I pushed everyone around me to work very long hours. Take a break when you need to. Take it easy on the people around you when they need it, too.”

5) Having a life outside of work doesn’t equate to a poor work ethic 

Gates, who dropped out of Harvard University after three semesters so that he could launch Microsoft, told NAU graduates that cutting themselves some slack didn’t mean that they were slackers. 

He said that as he was building the company in its early days that he didn’t see the point of a work-life balance

Gates would keep track of employees who left early and those that worked late—something he did easily from his office window which overlooked the parking lot. 

“I knew everyone’s license plate,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “So I could look out in the parking lot and see when people came in, [and] when they were leaving.”

Gates would even send critical “flame mails” in the middle of the night, according to his biographers

“When I was at Microsoft, I was tough on the people I worked with,” Gates wrote on his blog back in 2019. “Some of it helped us be successful, but I’m sure some of it was over the top.”

6) Your life’s work shouldn’t just be work 

Your life’s mission should be purpose-driven and mean something to you personally, said Gates.  

He gave advice about focusing on the world’s big issues such as climate change as well as biases in artificial intelligence. 

“You are graduating at a time of immense opportunity to help people,” Gates said in his speech to the graduates. 

“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.”

Gates said it was important to gravitate toward work that solves a problem. He encouraged the graduates to look for opportunities that energize them and compel them to do their very best work. 

7) Building friendships is just as important as building a career

Another lesson Gates imparted to the graduates was the importance of building a network—particularly the power of friendships. 

In his speech, Gates said that he became friends with another student who shared a lot of his interests, such as science fiction novels and computer magazines. 

He emphasized that classmates and colleagues can become valuable connections not just in their career, but also in their life as a whole.

Gates also recalled how he co-founded Microsoft with his friend, Paul Allen. 

Friends are not only your network, you co-founders, and your colleagues, he stressed, but they are also your sources of support, information, and advice. 

“The only thing more valuable than what you walk offstage with today is whom you walk onstage with.”

8) “Life is not a one-act play”

When Gates dropped out of Harvard University to start Microsoft, he truly believed that he would spend the rest of his life working at the company. 

“I’m so glad I was wrong,” he said.  

Gates told the graduates that he understood that they were probably facing huge amounts of pressure to make the right decisions about their careers. 

“It might feel like those decisions are permanent. [But] they’re not,” he said. “What you do tomorrow—or for the next ten years—does not have to be.”

9) In the end, time will run out 

Gates began to change gears on his jam-packed schedule when he happened upon Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett’s personal daily schedule. 

He also toned down his employees’ schedules. 

What was it about Warren Buffett’s schedule that made him lighten up on his “Ebaneezer Scrooge” work ethic?

“Every minute is jammed and I think that’s the only way you can do something,” he told CNBC in an interview. “I remember Warren showing me his calendar. He had days that had nothing scheduled.”

Buffett’s barely-there schedule taught Gates that it was people who control their time. “It is not representative of your seriousness to fill in every minute of your schedule,” he said. 

Buffett, who was interviewed alongside Gates back in 2017 said this at the time:

“Basically, I can buy whatever I want, but I can’t buy time.”

10) When it comes down to it, you are all you have 

Gates says this lesson is something that many professionals—particularly entrepreneurs—learn much too late in life.

Taking care of ourselves is crucial to career success—but also success in life. 

Gates believes that taking care of ourselves and having a life outside of work can actually lead to greater career achievement, not less, as many people mistakenly believe. 

He says the sooner people learn this vital lesson, the happier, and more successful they’ll be. 

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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