Dear Class of 2017

Congratulations! You’ve just accomplished something I never managed to do — earn a college degree.

Between your commencement speaker and every aunt and uncle at your graduation party, I am sure you are getting a lot of advice. At the risk of piling on, I thought I would share a few thoughts.

New college graduates often ask me for career advice. I was lucky to be in my early 20s when the digital revolution was just getting underway, and Paul Allen and I had the chance to help shape it. (Which explains my lack of a college degree: I left school because we were afraid the revolution would happen without us.)

Pictures of Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates (left) and Paul Allen in the early 1970s are on display at the Microsoft Visitor Center in Redmond, Washington.
Source: Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

If I were starting out today and looking for the same kind of opportunity to make a big impact in the world, I would consider three fields.

One is artificial intelligence. We have only begun to tap into all the ways it will make people’s lives more productive and creative.

The second is energy, because making it clean, affordable and reliable will be essential for fighting poverty and climate change.

The third is biosciences, which are ripe with opportunities to help people live longer, healthier lives.

But some things in life are true no matter what career you choose. I wish I had understood these things better when I left school. For one thing, intelligence is not quite as important as I thought it was, and it takes many different forms.

In the early days of Microsoft, I believed that if you could write great code, you could also manage people well or run a marketing team or take on any other task. I was wrong about that. I had to learn to recognize and appreciate people’s different talents. The sooner you can do this, if you don’t already, the richer your life will be.

Another thing I wish I had understood much earlier is what true inequity looks like. I did not see it up close until my late 30s, when Melinda and I took our first trip to Africa. We were shocked by what we saw. When we came back, we began learning more. It blew our minds that millions of children there were dying from diseases that no one in rich countries even worried about. We thought it was the most unjust thing in the world. We realized we couldn’t wait to get involved — we had to start giving back right away.
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