Skip the college and get rich – lessons from Bill Gates

(this is a series of blogs. Find more blogs here -> Skip the College & Get Rich)

This young boy is an apprentice carpenter. He begins his education at an early age. Every day he goes to his journeyman who educates him. He learns first how to use his tools, discovering which tools are better for each task. As each day goes on, his hands become surer and his knowledge more full. Once he understands the tools, he begins doing simple tasks, such as hammering nails, measuring and cutting lumber. His enthusiasm pulls him in new directions. With each new tool and technique, the wood reveals more of its secrets to him. His studies continue and he finetunes his skills, but he discovers as he ages that the real lessons are learned on his own. He spends less time with his instructor and the other Journeymen or apprentices. He goes to the woods, finds the right wood and cuts down his own trees. He experiments with his tools creating tables and chairs of his own design. Eventually, he goes out into the town and finds work for himself. He sells his tables and chairs and gains commission for new items. Eventually he no longer even returns to his instructors. He simply works, and his woodworking is praised for its innovative design and construction.

Sometimes you discover that everything you need to know can’t be taught in a formal setting.

Everyone knows Bill Gates, and everyone knows he never finished his college studies at Harvard. He’s also currently the richest person in the world for the first time since 2007, though he has consistently been in the top three for the last twenty years.

So how do we move from college dropout to wealthiest person in the world? Let’s start back a few decades.

His parents promoted the ideas of hard work and inventiveness, which instilled a very strong entrepreneurial nature into Gates as a child. When he was thirteen, he bought his first computer, which began a lifetime interest in programming. Because of this interest, he was allowed to miss math class to pursue programming, and he developed his first successful program at this time. He fell in love with machines and how they always gave a perfect result if you programmed it properly. Once, he and a few other students were even banned from Computer Center Corporation for exploiting bugs in their system in order to gain more free access to the computers. Eventually, CCC gave them free time in exchange for their work on finding the bugs in the programming. Eventually he was given a job writing code, and was even hired by his high school.

He scored a near perfect score on the SATs and attended Harvard after finishing high school. At Harvard, he met his future successor at Microsoft. While only a sophomore in college, he developed an algorithm to complete an unsolved problem. His record for speed of solution lasted for thirty years, with the new record being only 1% faster.

While at Harvard, Gates didn’t follow a set pattern or take classes in a specific direction. He spent much of his time working on computers and developing the skills he would need at Microsoft. Seeing the possibility to start his own software company, he dropped out of Harvard and threw himself into his endeavors.

He contacted Micro-Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems to tell them he was working on an interpreter for their Altair platform. In reality, he had done no such thing, but this got him a meeting with the President of the company. Over the following weeks he and his colleagues worked to complete this program, finishing on time and beginning a partnership with MITS that became Microsoft. After just a few months, he separated from MITS, creating software for a variety of companies, and personally overseeing every line of code the company produced, often rewriting it, while managing the business.

In 1980, he was approached by IBM to create the operating system for their new personal computer. Windows came into the world in 1985, which would go on to become the world’s largest computer software company.

As CEO and chief software architect, he launched the personal computer revolution which turned him into the incredibly wealthy man he is today. Since leaving Microsoft, he’s devoted much of his time, energy, and money to philanthropic efforts.

But the questions remains: how did a college dropout rise so high? How did he go from the kid in the library messing with computers to the man who changed the world through computers? And how did dropping out of college make this possible?

While there’s no way to say that Bill Gates would have been more or less successful had he finished his education at Harvard, it’s hard to argue with the results. Like many people, formal education just wasn’t the key to his success. There are certain things that are undeniably true about what happened when he dropped out of college.

If you take your classes and do your homework, you’re devoting a lot of time and mental energy into those studies. In addition, there’s the financial cost of continuing education. Without the time and cost of formal education, Gates was able to fully throw himself into his entrepreneurial pursuits. It’s clear that Gates was a very intelligent but unfocused student. Early in his education, he was already stealing time to work on computers rather than spend them in class or doing homework. This escalated as time went on, and it appears clear that he went to college more as an expectation than a necessity. During his two college years, he continued to devote a lot of time computers, writing code, and developing software.

The moment he saw an opportunity to go out on his own, he didn’t hesitate. He jumped immediately into his passion: computers. With the freedom to work on the projects he was passionate about, he was able to begin writing programs for the Altair, which is what launched his career. After some immediate successes, he was able to catapult his company into an enormous worldwide software company.

Let’s break down the way Bill Gates made himself a success:

Acting strategically – Rather than just innovating and innovating and innovating, Gates viewed software as a potential source of business opportunities before anyone else.

The right partners – He wasn’t afraid to sit behind bigger companies and learn from them. He positioned himself underneath MITS, Digital Research, and IBM and used them to launch him into the huge success he became.

Discipline and tenacity – He helped his partners succeed and did whatever he could to help them achieve their goals, which, of course, furthered him as well. Even when working for companies like IBM was said to be very difficult, he stuck with it and gained success, though he had to give up his own meticulousness and perfectionism.

Gates further acknowledges the limitations of education, though he’s become a very devoted funder of education reform and improving the American school system. Throughout his career he’s discussed things you don’t learn in school, but that you’ll need to know in order to succeed.

Life’s not fair – In school everyone has more or less the same chances at success, but once you leave school, it’s all about gaining a competitive advantage. Your employers care about results, not fairness.

You need to accomplish something before you gain self-esteem – This is almost the opposite of what education in the US focuses on. In the real world, you need to prove that you’re worthy. No one cares about your problems unless you first add value to them.

Your boss is tougher on you than your teacher – The difference between an employer and a teacher is that your teacher is there to make you better. Your boss is there to demand results from you. If you can’t give results, you don’t just get an F, you get fired.

No job is beneath you – It doesn’t matter how much education you have, you’re not better than a job. Millions of people flip burgers for a living in order to improve their life step by step. Just because you went to college or grad school doesn’t mean you’re too good to work hourly jobs.

Mistakes are no one else’s fault – Don’t blame others for your mistakes: learn from them. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. Blaming others gets you nowhere, and it’ll probably just make people resent you.

School isn’t about winning and losing, but life can be – It’s unkind for teachers to rate students by winners and losers, but your employers will. They want winners, whether that’s kind or fair or not. The world is about results, and it doesn’t matter how you feel about that.

Life is not divided into terms – If you mess up one business quarter, you don’t start over at the next one. Everything carries over and there are no do-overs.

For Bill Gates, college was an unnecessary aspect of his personal journey. He didn’t need instructors or formal education to make his dreams a reality. He was pushing past what he would have learned in his classes and developed his own abilities independent of what he could have discovered from instruction. He was a man determined to succeed regardless of who told him he was qualified or not. No diploma or certification would have made Bill Gates a better entrepreneur or more successful titan of software.