Wisdom//

Bill Gates on the 3 Surprising Things His Parents Did to Set Him Up for Success

William Sr. and Mary Gates clearly knew what they were doing.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

A lot of factors had to come together to make Bill Gates into the billionaire philanthropist he is today — including the way he was raised. His parents — Mary and William Gates, Sr. — weren’t afraid to be a little unconventional when it came to raising their son. Gates has revealed three aspects of his childhood that helped shape him into who he is today:

They stressed the importance of community

The Gates family made a point of being involved in community work and philanthropy, making sure that their kids participated too. “Mary was a firm believer in an idea from the ‘Book of Luke’: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,‘” Gates Sr. said in an interview with Forbes. “From the beginning, she instilled it as an important value in our family.” It’s clear that this is something their son has taken seriously in his adult life as well.

They gave him a significant amount of independence

The struggle between parents’ authority and children’s autonomy is nothing new, but the Gates parents were more willing than most to give him a significant amount of independence. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, they enrolled Bill in a private school known to give their students unusual amounts of freedom. It was at this school that Bill discovered computers.

By the age of 13, Bill’s parents permitted him to visit the University of Washington at night to use their computers. They also allowed him to leave home for chunks of time, like to go to Olympia, where he was a page at the state legislature, and Washington, D.C. to work as a Congressional page. He also took a break from school his senior year of high school to work as a programmer at a power plant in southern Washington. All this was before he dropped out of Harvard University to move to New Mexico to found Microsoft.

“Mary and I were both concerned about it — I think she a bit more than I,” Bill Sr. told the Wall Street Journal. “Her expectations and mine were very ordinary expectations of people who have kids in college — that they get a degree.” But ultimately they were supportive of their son, who eventually moved the company closer to home in Seattle.

They wouldn’t let him give up just because he didn’t excel at something

When you’re raising a smart kid who’s good at a lot of things, it can be easy to let them drop out of activities where they don’t excel. But that’s not what the Gates parents did — they made sure he continued to participate in swimming, soccer, football, and playing the trombone — even if he wasn’t the most gifted in those areas. Though it probably would have been easier not to attend kids’ soccer games or have someone in your house learning how to play a brass instrument, Bill’s parents understood that it was important that he learned that he didn’t have to be good at everything, and that failure is perfectly normal and acceptable.

“At the time I thought it was kind of pointless,” Bill Gates said of these activities in an interview with Fortune, “but it ended up really exposing me to leadership opportunities and showing me that I wasn’t good at a lot of things, instead of sticking to things that I was comfortable with. It was fantastic, and now some of those activities I cherish. They had to stick to it because I pushed back a lot, but it was fantastic advice.”

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