What Bill Gates “Focusing His Time” Says About Your Career
Even billionaires can’t do everything
A few days ago, Bill Gates announced he would be stepping down from both the boards of Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway, positions he held for 34 and 16 years respectively. The world’s second-richest man made the move to “focus his time” and prioritize philanthropy, specifically his “increasing engagement in tackling climate change.”
At the end of a documentary about the man, interviewer Davis Guggenheim recaps some of Bill’s promising but not yet completely successful projects, like sanitation in developing countries, eradicating polio, and clean nuclear power. Then, he provocatively asks: “Is there a part where you say, ‘This is way too hard, I took on too much, I quit’?”
Gates response is exactly what you’d expect from someone who worked his way to the very top of the economic hierarchy: “Well, sometimes, you really do have to say, ‘Let’s give up.’ And sometimes, you have to just say, ‘I need to work harder.’” According to Guggenheim, that’s the answer he always gives when facing a challenge: work harder.
At age 64, however, physically working harder seems to become less and less of an option for the business magnate — and it’s unlikely that’s what he means. Gates reportedly sleeps seven hours a night and looks to be in decent shape.
There is, of course, a different way to “work harder,” and, even for a man with unlimited resources, it appears to be the only one left: work less on different projects and more towards a single goal. Focus, in other words. Giving up those board seats suggests that’s what he’s trying to do.
I’ll never be as successful as Bill Gates, but in my short, five-year career as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned the same lesson many times over: It’s hard to achieve something meaningful if you dedicate yourself to it half-heartedly. You can’t put in spare-time hours and expect full-time results.
Now, balancing diversification and focus isn’t an easy task. Concentrating too heavily on one source of income makes you vulnerable, but working on too many projects at once dilutes your results. The consequences of both are real, and each option comes with its own sacrifices at any given time.
One rule of thumb that makes me feel good about what I’m currently working on is this: Start what you’ll regret not starting, and then drop what you won’t regret dropping.
Early in our careers, it’s hard to know what we want. Few of us are born chefs or obviously talented at one specific type of work. We’ll have to sample a variety of different activities in order to find one where both we and our results have staying power.
Once we discover a sustainable career, however, we must cut away the distractions. Otherwise, we’ll get stuck in mediocrity, and none of our ventures will really advance. This is a never-ending responsibility, as those distractions will keep sneaking up on us forever — and oh how tempting they’ll sometimes sound.
While it’s good to be somewhat diversified in your finances and skills, it’s easy to lose sight of making progress where it really matters, especially after you’ve developed a solid foundation and most of the endeavors you tackle end up being somewhat successful.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you might find yourself with five different software and information products, some of which have potential to be much bigger, but all of which require your precious time and energy. If you’re an employee, you might get an opportunity to jump from project management to the creative side or vice versa, which could be feasible given your skill set but not where you ultimately want to end up.
Saying no to good-but-not-great opportunities gets harder and harder the more you advance — because the good opportunities begin to look better and better. Unfortunately, this only makes saying no more important. You’ll have to sacrifice good for great and give up large potential growth in new areas for small gains in existing ones.
That’s what Bill Gates is doing right now. He knows Microsoft and Berkshire are in good hands. Leadership at both companies has “never been stronger, so the time is right to take this step.”
20 years ago, Bill and Melinda Gates launched their foundation to drive progress through innovation. In their latest annual letter, they shared a quote from Bill’s mother: “Your lifetime together will, in the end, be a verdict on your recognition of the extraordinary obligations which accompany extraordinary resources.” Given their $100 billion fortune, using their resources to improve the world is, indeed, a big obligation to live up to, an obligation that requires — and now has — Bill Gates’s singular focus.
Whether you’ve already found your big picture commitment or not, be prepared to give up the good to further pursue the great. You might have to drop board seats, quit promising projects, or even shut down businesses that make money. Don’t let any of this deter you. When you know, you know. Keep doing the right thing.
Who knows? Someday, you might even realize that, like Bill, you’re “addressing some of the world’s toughest challenges.” If that’s not worth your sole focus and best effort, then I don’t know what is.