• United States
by William Gates, Sr., Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Lessons from Bill Gates’ dad: Whitman College commencement speech

May 22, 200812 mins
Data Center

Microsoft founder's father to graduates' parents: "I never could get my son to finish college. How did you do it?"

Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ father delivers commencement speech at Whitman College in Washington State, urging students to enjoy themselves and assuring them they’ll make a difference in this world by being themselves.

Editor’s note: This is a transcript of a commencement speech delivered to Whitman College students by William Gates, Sr.(above). His son, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, delivered a commencement address last spring at Harvard University.

May 18, 2008

It is customary to start by congratulating the graduating seniors. And you deserve it, no doubt about it. You’ve spent four years of intense reading, writing and thinking. But, speaking as a father who couldn’t get his own son to finish college, I really want to congratulate the parents. How’d you do it?

It was very kind of you to invite me here. And it is especially generous of the graduates to believe that I might have something useful to say to you about your future. As I just suggested, my record as a motivator of youth is spotty at best.

A very long time has passed since my own graduation.

It was long enough ago that men wore hats. Long enough ago that the Los Angeles Lakers were called the Detroit Gems.

The point is, there are plenty of ways in which I am very far away from your experience.

So, I am going to talk about some very basic things — ideas you will be comfortable with, notwithstanding your being the product, today, of experiences, teachings and observations quite different from those which had shaped my world view when I sat where you are some 60 years ago.

My premise is that there may be value to you in hearing what an 82-year-old man has to say about the ingredients that cause him to look back at that life with satisfaction.

My strongest basis for confidence in presuming to lecture to you here today arises from my knowing that my few thoughts for you are not going to fall far from your existing belief system — I expect I may, at best, make explicit or give reinforcement to what you already hold as your values.

Let me open by suggesting that among worthy goals is what you might call personal indulgence. There is nothing wrong with learning how to hit a golf ball straight — nothing wrong with learning to appreciate beautiful paintings or plant a garden.

By far the most rewarding part of my life is — and always has been — that top item on my list: raising a family. And if there’s one thing about your future I feel comfortable in predicting, it is that you either do or will feel the same way. I want you to know, by the way, that I mean family in the broadest sense — whether by blood, adoption, or bonds of affection.

Let me suggest that you be as deliberate as you can be about the job of raising your family. Being deliberate helps translate your fundamental human decency into your behavior as a parent.

It is intriguing to me that, as a culture, we so seldom look for or accept any guidance in how to be a parent. You need a Ph.D. to teach 20-year-olds for a few hours a week. Based on current priorities in our society, you don’t need anything at all to teach an infant for 168 hours a week. But which does more good if you’re skilled? And which does more harm if you’re not? I’m not saying you should get a certificate in parenting, but you should think very carefully about what kind of parent you want to be and how to get there.

I had the good fortune to marry a woman who grew up in a family that enjoyed a number of annual traditions. One was an assumption that everyone would be together for Sunday dinner. Another was new pajamas for all hanging on the tree on Christmas morning.

We adopted many of these regimens and added a couple of our own.

I mention this as an example of being deliberate in organizing a family life and because I am certain that those traditions had the central role in creating a sense continuity and permanence for our kids growing up in a world full of change and uncertainty.

The next of my paramount pleasures is having a long list of very good friends. This list includes people I met in grade school.

I belong to a bridge club that was started in 1952. I look forward with pleasure to our meetings. It is in part the pleasure of shared memories. But it is also the comfort of sharing of experiences and views with people whose ideas you have come to know and appreciate.

If you come to cherish friends as I do you will discover that, as with family, there is a requirement of deliberateness to make it work. You do need to mail that note or make the phone call to keep friendship alive.

Now I venture out onto softer ground.

I am very comfortable extolling the rewards that flow from conscientious, well-informed parenting and urging you to make that part of your life. I am very comfortable underscoring the pleasures derived from making the effort to have and to maintain close friendships.

The obvious next question is, what about a public life. Is this something I would want to promote?

Private life has many rewards. But my life would have been much the poorer if I had not experienced the times when I felt like I belonged to something larger.

My favorite axiom is: “We are all in this together.”

You know it’s a good axiom because there are so many ways to express it. “We’re all in the same boat” is one. Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

The fundamental idea here is interdependence. We simply cannot succeed without the contribution of others.

What are the implications of that idea? The biggest one is basic citizenship. Citizenship means that we are obligated to believe that every person matters just as much as every other person.

Further implications: Citizens must not prosper at the expense of another person. Citizens should aspire to do what they can to counteract the disadvantages that random chance imposes on others.

I suggest that this principle for society at large is alive and working in our world. Let me cite the most prominent example there is of the role of good citizenship in working fundamental improvement.

When I graduated from college, our society condoned the killing of African-Americans. My senior year, a man was beaten to death in Mississippi because, his murderers explained, he was “hogging the road” with his horse-and-buggy, and they couldn’t pass in their car. They were never punished.

But now, we might just be ready to elect an African-American president of the United States. I never imagined I’d see that.

One of the great historical themes of my lifetime — America’s march toward racial justice — has demonstrated the vast potential of citizenship.

You can’t explain the civil-rights movement in terms of heroic public service alone. You can give credit but not sole credit to the handful of public figures whose names we all know. Martin Luther King is a hero of mine, but for every Martin Luther King there were thousands of courageous Southerners, citizens whose names we don’t know, who sat in at lunch counters. Thousands who registered to vote, boycotted buses, and enrolled in schools where they weren’t wanted. Thousands who marched into mobs of men armed with billy clubs.

And there were millions of white citizens who said they would no longer sanction racism. Most of them didn’t storm any barricades, but they did the small, necessary things. They told their politicians that the issue mattered. They donated money to the cause. They made sure their children learned about civil rights in school.

What I am getting at is what I believe to be the real substance of democracy: something called public will. It’s an abstract concept, public will. You can’t touch it, or take a photograph of it or buy it at the store.

But when important things happen, it’s because the public had the will to make them happen. And when nothing happens, it’s because the public isn’t willing. Public will is the reason why the civil-rights movement happened in the 1960s, but not in the 1940s, when I was your age.

That’s what public will does, but what is public will?

It is the sum total of every person’s individual, deliberate acts of citizenship. You join a club. You read a newspaper. You sign a petition. You write a letter. You vote. You make a contribution. You have a friendly argument. If those clubs and newspapers and petitions and letters and votes and contributions and arguments predominantly point in the same direction, that’s public will.

Public will is when the right thing to do becomes consensus and people generally start expressing the convictions they share in everything they do.

So, I don’t care if you carry a banner or if you stand near the back. You can yell into a megaphone if you like, or you can listen carefully if that’s more your style. You don’t need a soap box to be a good citizen. You just need to be part of the public will to make life on this planet a little bit better.

And if I know you at all, I know that you want to be part of it. I also know that you’re ready to be, because I know what you’ve learned here at Whitman.

But let me carry this sense I have about the wisdom that “we are all in this together” a bit further.

I would argue that we are extending the consensus that has led to the dramatic results flowing from the success of the civil-rights movement.

I would advance the belief that we are, at least here in this country and other developed countries, seeing a growing acceptance of the idea that we have an obligation to counteract the fundamental disadvantages that so burden a large part of mankind.

One significant piece of this movement is the growing sentiment for taking steps which provide for all children the ability to begin school prepared to take advantage of that schooling — the Early Learning movement. If the public will develops to succeed in this effort, the impact will be stupendous.

And lest you underestimate the measure of my optimism, let me go on to mention what I see as the global dimensions of the good citizenship I describe.

In the last few years, as I have traveled around on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I have seen the stirrings of a movement for global equality. I see it in all the attention the foundation is getting. I see it in something like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, a brand-new invention that is spending billions of dollars to save millions of lives. More than anything, I see it when I talk to people and hear what they’re concerned about.

And I have begun to perceive that this movement for global equality might just be your civil-rights movement.

How can a world of plenty have a billion hungry people? How can a million infants die of a disease, diarrhea, for which the treatment is Gatorade?

That could be the world-historical problem that you solve through billions of ordinary acts of citizenship.

Dr. King spent his life preaching about this world you are on the verge of creating. He was a preacher because he knew that people needed to keep striving to bring that world into being. He knew that the future he imagined was not ineluctable. It would have to be the product of human effort, your human effort.

“Through our scientific and technological genius,” King said, “we have made of this world a neighborhood. And yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.”

There is that axiom again.

Let me note here that many people make the case that global poverty is an economic issue or a national security issue. If we have to make that argument to generate the public will required to fight this inequity, we should do it. But to me this is not primarily an economic issue or a national-security issue; this is a humanitarian issue. People are dying and we can save them — that ought to be enough.

People suffering in poverty are human beings. They are not national-security assets. They are not markets for our exports. They are not allies in the war against terrorism.

They are human beings who have infinite worth in their own right without any reference to us. They have mothers who love them, children who need them and friends who cherish them, and we simply ought to help them.

When I was young there was no Internet. No cable news. I turned my attention to the things I knew, and so did all the people around me. There was zero public interest to think of equality on a worldwide scale.

You are different. You will have to work hard not to learn about the wide world. And when you are aware of people suffering, you will act on their behalf. Privileged people aren’t selfish with their privilege. You will display the ethical commitment to make of this world a brotherhood.

So, on your graduation day, let me exhort you to go fishing. Get a massage. Read a novel. I exhort you to find a way to pay the rent. I exhort you to find love. I exhort you to be a learned parent and to wring all the joy you can out of the people you surround yourself with — your friends.

But I leave aside any exhortation to go out and change the world. Because you will change it. Not because I say so, but because you are who you are now — graduates of Whitman College, possessed of all of the qualities this fine institution has taught you.

Good luck and thank you.