Ah, retirement. Time to kick back, relax, and rethink philanthropy, learn biochemistry, eradicate malaria and develop drought-resistant crops.
Let me tell you about Bill Gates. He is different from you and me. First off, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft has always been something of a utopian. In his mind, even the world's knottiest problems can be solved if you apply enough IQ. Accordingly, Gates, who has been spotted on Seattle freeways reading a book while driving himself to the office, covets knowledge. It's as if he's still trying to make up for dropping out of Harvard, as he spends just about any spare waking minute reading, studying science texts, or watching university courses on DVD.
Some say his wealth and famous opportunism are reminiscent of the robber barons of yore. Yet here is a man who has set a goal to eradicate malaria. Rich as he is - his net worth is an estimated $50 billion - you can't call the man greedy when he has pledged to give back to humanity all but a tiny fraction of 1% of that fortune.
These traits only begin to explain why Gates, at 52, has chosen to redirect his efforts toward more altruistic pursuits. On July 1 he will step away from an operating role at Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) to devote more time to philanthropy and other interests. The shift has been on his mind for nearly a decade, and it reflects some important experiences over his lifetime.
Much is expected
Like that seminal time back in 1968 when his mother, Mary, spearheaded an effort to install a used Teletype terminal in his school so that her already autodidactic junior high schooler could teach himself how to program a mainframe. There was his epiphany when he first met fellow billionaire Warren Buffett in 1991 - and realized that it quite literally pays to follow your curiosity beyond your own area of expertise.
And there's the poignant letter his mother wrote in 1993 to his fiancée, Melinda French, cluing her in to the Gates family credo: "From those to whom much has been given, much is expected." (Mary Gates would die the next year.) That letter, in turn, led to the self-conscious irony in the slogan he and his wife hit upon for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: All lives have equal value.
The genes, the IQ, the life of privilege, and the noblesse oblige have always been there. Given that background, it makes sense that he would turn his attention and wealth to the greater good. But there is a more selfish motive in the "retirement" of Bill Gates, and one that no one should begrudge him. For the first time since he quit Harvard to start Microsoft 33 years ago, Gates is going to have the time to indulge what his father calls his "world-class curiosity."
Gates' closest friends wonder how he will exploit this new freedom. "He doesn't know for sure where his mind is going to go," says Buffett, who has donated the bulk of his own $45 billion fortune to the Gates Foundation, largely because he believes his money will be used wisely and effectively. "Not only will it be fascinating, but I think it's going to be, for me, very satisfying to watch."
"He is one of the greatest business minds of all time, and you don't just shut that off," adds Nathan Myhrvold, the former head of Microsoft's R&D labs, who still kicks around ideas with his former boss via e-mail almost daily. "My guess is we have not seen the last business idea out of Bill Gates."