Bill Gates last week gave the commencement address at Northern Arizona University to graduates in the College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences and the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences.
These areas represent fields that are especially meaningful to Gates in his role as philanthropist and activist. Although Gates called himself “a college dropout” in the speech, he shared a wealth of wisdom gained by experience with the class of 2023, which applies to not just young executives but seasoned professionals like himself.
Here are the five things, says Gates, that “I wish I was told at the graduation I never had.”
1. Your life isn’t a one-act play.
“You’re probably facing a lot of pressure right now to make the right decisions about your career. It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not,” Gates said. “What you do tomorrow—or for the next ten years—does not have to be what you do forever.”
Gates shared that when he left college after three semesters, he was convinced he would work at Microsoft for the rest of his life. And while he still works on software, Gates said that philanthropy, especially in the areas of climate change and global inequalities, is his full-time calling.
“Not only is it okay to change your mind, reinvent yourself, or have a second career, it can be a good thing,” Gates said.
2. You are never too smart to be confused.
In his second point, Gates emphasized the value of lifelong learning. “I thought I knew everything when I left college,” he said. “But eventually, I realized that the first step to learning something new is leaning into what you don’t know, instead of focusing on what you do know.”
Such learning, said Gates, is best gleaned from others who are experts in their field—or perhaps just a little further along than you. “At some point in your career, you will find yourself facing a problem you cannot solve on your own. When that happens, don’t panic. Take a breath. Force yourself to think things through. And then find smart people to learn from.
“It could be a colleague with more experience. It could be one of your fellow graduates, who has a good perspective and will push you to think differently. It could even be an expert in the field who is willing to reply to your questions over DM.”
Bill Gates said that just about everything he has accomplished happened because he sought out others who knew more than he did. “People want to help you. The key is to not be afraid to ask. You may be done with school. But the rest of your life can—and should—still be an education.”
Photo by Gates Foundation