Some Second Thoughts About Thinking
In the early days of Microsoft's success, when my son's name was starting to become known to the world at large, everybody from reporters at Fortune magazine to the checkout person at the local grocery store would ask me, "How do you raise a kid like that? What's the secret?"
At those moments I was generally thinking to myself, "Oh, it's a secret all right... because I don't get it either!"
My son, Bill, has always been known in our family as Trey.
When we were awaiting his arrival, knowing that if the baby was a boy he would be named "Bill Gates III," his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother thought of the confusion that would result from having two Bills in the same household. Inveterate card players, they suggested we call him "Trey," which, as any card player knows, refers to the number three card.
As a young boy, Trey probably read more than many other kids and he often surprised us with his ideas about how he thought the world worked. Or imagined it could work.
Like other kids his age, he was interested in science fiction. He was curious and thoughtful about things adults had learned to take for granted or were just too busy to think about.
His mother, Mary, and I often joked about the fact that Trey sometimes moved slowly and was often late.
It seemed like every time we were getting ready to go somewhere everybody else in the family would be out in the car—or at least have their coats on. And then someone would ask, "Where's Trey?"
Someone else would reply, "In his room."
Trey's room was inour daylight basement, a partially above-ground area with a door and windows looking out on the yard. So his mother would call down to him, "Trey, what are you doing down there?"
Once Trey shot back, "I'm thinking, mother. Don't you ever think?"
Imagine yourself in our place. I was in the most demanding years of my law practice. I was a dad, a husband, doing all the things parents in families do. My wife, Mary, was raising three kids, volunteering for the United Way, and doing a million other things. And your child asks you if you ever take time to think.
Mary and I paused and looked at each other. And then we answered in unison, "No!"
However, now that I've had nearly half a century to reflect on my son's question, I'd like to change my answer to it.
Yes I think. I think about many things.
For example, reflecting on my own experience raising a family, I think about how as parents most of us try to feel our way through the challenges that come with being married and raising children. We have very little formal training for those roles, and they are two of the most difficult and important things we'll ever undertake.
I think about the inequities that exist in our world and about the opportunities we have to correct them, opportunities that have never existed before in all of human history.
I also think about less critical concerns, such as when the University of Washington Huskies might make it to the Rose Bowl.
Lately, I've been wondering if any of that thinking is worth passing on to others.
I realize that I have been privileged to meet many remarkable people whose stories might be inspiring or helpful to other people.
Also, in reflecting on our family's life when our children were young, it has occurred to me that our experiences might be useful or at least interesting to other families.
There is one lesson I've learned over the years as a father, lawyer, activist, and citizen which stands above all the others that I hope to convey in these pages. It is simply this: We are all in this life together and we need each other.
Showing Up for Life
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
—Woody Allen, from Love & Death
A few years ago I received an award from the YMCA.
The day the award was to be presented I looked around the crowded ballroom wondering why all those people were making such a fuss over me.
The only thing I could come up with was that I show up a lot.
When I was a young lawyer in the 1950s, I first became involved with causes in the community by joining the board of the YMCA, where I had spent many happy hours as a college student.
After a while, I decided I wanted to do more to show up in my community and help out in a hands-on way.
So along with doing pro bono law work, I started serving on committees and boards for everything from the chamber of commerce to school levy campaigns. Over time the nature of some of them changed and the number grew. At the same time my wife, Mary, was showing up for her own list of causes.
Why do I show up so much? Well, I suppose there are a lot of reasons.
I show up because I care about a cause. Or because I care about the person who asked me to show up. And maybe sometimes I show up because it irritates me when other people don't show up.
My obsessive showing up has become a joke among my children. Still, I notice they've picked up the habit. And frankly, that's what happened to me.
I started showing up because as far back as I can remember I watched other people I admired showing up.
In my hometown of Bremerton, Washington, showing up to lend your neighbors a hand was just something decent people did. My parents, on a scale of one to ten, were nines at showing up. My dad was somebody people knew they could count on. If there was money to be raised for a good cause, my dad was always willing to call on people and ask them to give a few dollars. He had led the effort to have a new park built in town. I read about it in an old newspaper long after he died. I had not known about it, but it didn't surprise me.
My mom showed up for a long list of community activities that included everything from picnics to fund drives.
My parents never talked about showing up. They just did it.
Another adult who provided me with powerful life lessons in showing up was our next-door neighbor, Dorm Braman. He showed up for so many things and accomplished so much in his life you'd have thought it would take two men to live Dorm's life.
Dorm owned a cabinet-making business and in his spare time he led our Boy Scout troop.
He was a remarkable man whose showing up touched a lot of lives. In fact, even though he had never graduated from high school, after we Boy Scouts were all in college, Dorm ran for mayor of Seattle and won. Later, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon as assistant secretary of transportation.
In the early years when he was our Scoutmaster, one weekend every month—rain or shine—Dorm took us on adventures that ranged from laid-back camping trips to arduous twenty-mile hikes through the Olympic Mountains.
One year he even acquired an old bus, added more seats to it, and took all of us to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Far and away the most unforgettable memory I have of Dorm's showing up involved the building of what we called Camp Tahuya and Sundown Lodge.
This adventure began when Dorm decided our Boy Scout troop was going to acquire its own campsite and on it build a marvelous log lodge.
The first step was to persuade the local Lions Club to back the idea and buy the troop the land. We named the place Camp Tahuya after the river that ran through it.
Once we had the site, Dorm taught us how to clear land, fell trees, and build.
A lot has changed since then.
At that time, we felled the trees by hand and sawed the logs into proper lengths using two-man crosscut saws, and hand-peeled and planed them smooth and to proper dimensions using hand-wielded adzes. We had one power tool—a circular saw powered by Dorm's flatbed truck.
Every weekend for three summers we twenty teenagers, Dorm, and our assistant scoutmaster worked all day, cooked our meals over open fires, and slept under the stars.
After three summers of labor (plus that of countless weekends during the school year) we had our log lodge in the woods.
It was an imposing twenty-five-by-forty-foot structure with a main floor larger than most of our homes and a massive fireplace built by the father of one of the boys who was a stonemason. It had a large kitchen and a sleeping loft.
It is difficult to convey the extent of the work it took to build Sundown Lodge—or our sense of achievement in getting it done—to anyone who has never built a building from the ground up.
In the narrowest sense, it would be true to say that we learned to use a variety of common hand tools, build a complex structure, and grow calluses and a few scars where none existed before.
In a broader sense, we were witness to an example of visionary and inclusive leadership and the amazing power of people working together toward a common goal.
All the showing up Dorm did in our lives gave shape to more than a log lodge in the woods. It gave shape to a place in our minds where we believed anything was possible.
People often ask me why—at the age of eighty-three—I still rise early every morning and drive to an office to work.
I usually respond with a predictable three-word answer: I like working.
I like the challenge of having to make decisions where there's always a risk of failing. I find that exhilarating. I think I'm much better off doing what I'm doing than I would be sitting on a beach somewhere.
I suppose there are many reasons why I'm working almost as hard today as I did when I was a much younger man practicing law.
One of them has to do with my father.
In my first summer job during high school, I worked as a "swamper" in my father's furniture store, lifting such things as mattresses and sofas and easy chairs on and off of delivery trucks and carrying them into people's homes.
I put in long hours doing physically taxing work. And my father was pleased with how I attacked the job.
In 1912 my grandfather, William Henry Gates, agreed to pay $733 to buy the stock of a furniture store on Front Street in downtown Bremerton. By the time I was born, the store, the U.S. Furniture Store, was being run by my father and my grandfather's partner's son, Roy Morrison.
As far back as I can remember my dad's life revolved around the store, but he never took things for granted.
My earliest memory of Dad is an image of him walking home from work every night picking up pieces of coal he'd find in the alley. They had fallen off trucks delivering coal to our neighbors. In those days people used coal to heat their houses. Dad would bring those stray pieces home and put them in our coal box.
This daily ritual spoke to the degree of anxiety Dad felt about making ends meet.
There was, of course, reason to be concerned. In 1929 when I was four years old, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression hit. So I grew up with a fear I don't think my own children ever experienced, the fear of ending up poor.
But my dad had learned something about what it meant to be poor long before the Depression. As an eight-year-old, he had sold newspapers in the freezing cold streets of Nome, Alaska, to help his family get by while his dad went panning for gold. As an eighth-grader he gave up school entirely to help support his family.
I suppose it was his history combined with the tough times we were living through that made Dad seem as if he was always running scared.
He didn't go to movies or ball games. He didn't fish or hunt or boat or hike. He rarely took a vacation until the day he retired. Dad worked.
In the early days of Microsoft, my son, Trey, and his partner, Paul Allen, worked, ate, and slept in their first office in Albuquerque, where they wrote software programs.
There were no days off in that situation either.
Trey worked at the same relentless pace for decades.
Achieving anything of real significance in life requires hard work.
My father sold his store in 1940 to a family from out of town that owned a much larger furniture operation.
The money my parents received from the sale of the store wouldn't have been much by today's standards, but it was more than enough to make them comfortable in those days. Still Dad's work ethic remained undiminished.
Even after he retired, he did stints working for another furniture store in town, along with helping on projects for his service clubs.
When my older daughter, Kristi, was a little girl, she sometimes took the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton to spend time with her grandparents.
She remembers walking with my mother to meet my father at the end of each day, down the same alley where he had picked up coal to heat our house in the depths of the Depression. Then as before, he was walking home from work.
My sister Merridy was seven years older than I. When we were growing up, I often felt uncomfortable about the fact that there seemed to be different rules for me than there were for Merridy.
One example of this was that our father didn't think girls needed to know how to drive. So, Merridy never learned how to drive a car. I, on the other hand, was permitted to get my driver's license the minute I turned sixteen.
By that time Merridy was married. She had a job and was earning her own money. For my sixteenth birthday, she spent eighty-five dollars—which was a significant sum then—to buy me a birthday present: a 1930 Model A Ford roadster with a rumble seat. Merridy's generosity—when she had been denied the opportunity to drive herself—was something I have never forgotten.
I was elated with the roadster. Dad was not. He must have spent three times what Merridy paid for the car to make it safe for me to drive, lending some credibility to the notion that "what goes around comes around."
Of course, Merridy's gift to me was more than a car—she gave me my first real lesson in what it means to be a truly generous person.
We've all known people a few steps ahead of us—whether it's a difficult older sibling or a controlling boss—who seem determined that no one else will ever make it to their station in life without undergoing the same pain and hardship they suffered.
By contrast, Merridy, who had never even been allowed to get a driver's license at my age, reached beyond the limits of her history, her restricted resources, and any inclination toward envy, to give me a gift she herself had never been given.