Briday asks: Is it true that Bill Gates didn’t take any days off work in his 20s?
Bill Gates has frequently stated, “I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one.” He goes on, “When I was in my 20s and early 30s, my whole life was focused on work. I didn’t take vacations or weekends off. I was always the first in the office and the last to leave….”
As for why, he states of starting a company, “It is nice, if during those first several years if you have a team that’s chosen to be pretty maniacal about the company… I have a fairly hard-core view that there should be a very large sacrifice made during those early years… In the software world – particularly for platforms – these are winner-take-all markets.”
So is it really true he literally never took a single day off? And in more recent times, what does the occasionally richest human on the planet do when he does take time off?
As to the former question, as far as our research shows, beyond Gates himself stating this on more than one occasion, there’s never been a single person who worked with Gates during Microsoft’s formative years that has contested this claim. On the contrary, in Paul Allen’s excellent book, Idea Man, he frequently comments on the fact that even in their teen years, he, Gates, and some of their cohorts would have to be almost literally pried away from the computer terminal to go home and sleep, with Gates being one of the most hard core of them all in that respect. This is something that only intensified when they started “Micro-Soft” and no longer had parents watching over them to make sure they got proper rest. In fact, Allen states he and Gates used to frequently stay up working for a couple days at a time, followed by sleeping for sometimes as much as 20 hours straight. To keep going during those long hours, Allen also claims Gates had a habit of licking Tang powder off his hands for energy.
With regards to his 20s, it’s also noteworthy here that it was when Gates was 19 that Allen and he saw the cover of a January of 1975 edition of Popular Electronics magazine that read: “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models… ‘Altair 8800′”
Why is this important? When they read the details, it turns out Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) had used the new Intel 8080 chip in their Altair 8800 computer kit.
This is what Allen and Gates had been waiting for.
The pair had previously been intrigued by potentially using the Intel 8008 chip to make a general purpose home computer out of. But given memory limitations, they realized that a getting a BASIC interpreter to run on it would have taken up nearly all the memory, leaving almost nothing to run any useful program. Thus, they shelved the idea, though the teens did use the chip to develop their Traf-o-Data system, which automated tracking certain traffic data, with that company flopping when certain states started offering for free the same service their Traf-o-Data system performed.
When the Intel 8080 chip debuted in April of 1974, they realized it could do what they had in mind, but still tabled the idea as there was no one who made an off the shelf system that could use the chip the way they had in mind. You see, the chip itself wasn’t targeted at a general computer type market, but rather to be used in various designated systems like traffic lights, industrial robots, etc. Allen initially tried to convince Gates they should develop such a hardware system using it, but Gates dismissed the idea, noting they were software people; they knew little about the hardware side, and anyway didn’t have the money for those sorts of projects. They needed to find an opportunity that played to their strengths.
Then the Altair 8800 came out- a $439 computer kit initially meant to be a niche product to make it easier and much cheaper for hobbyists to build their own personal computer; instead, it ended up kicking off the microcomputer revolution.
To give you an idea of what a steal of a deal this kit was, a similarly capable machine at the time sold by Intel ran for about $10,000 (about $47,000 today). Further, the 2 Mhz Intel 8080 chip itself usually cost $360 ($1,700 today), only $79 less than the entire Altair kit. MITS was able to sell the kit so cheap as, among similar deals for the other components, they had made a deal with Intel to allow them to purchase the 8080s for only $75 each.
Seeing the potential, Gates and Allen immediately wrote a letter to MITS’ President, Ed Roberts, using their former company Traf-O-Data on the letter head to make it all seem more legit. They claimed they were nearly done with an implementation of a BASIC interpreter that would run on the Altair 8800, and were wondering if Altair would like to license it when they finished it. Roberts would later state that he called the number on the letter and instead of getting a business, got someone’s home phone, with the person who answered having no clue what he was talking about. Thinking they got no response, the pair went ahead and called Roberts themselves.
Gates did the talking as he was the better negotiator and knew more about the system they were supposed to already be nearly done with; but the pair agreed he would say his name was Paul Allen, as Allen had a beard and looked much older than Gates. Thus, Gates would do the talking over the phone as Allen, and Allen would take the lead in person.
Unfortunately for them, Roberts was less than enthusiastic, saying he’d received several similar calls, but despite people’s claims, nobody was actually able to show that they really had implemented such an interpreter for the computer. He then told them the first person to walk through his door with a working BASIC interpreter would get a contract.
With so many others apparently thinking the same thing about the potential of this machine, Gates and Allen knew they’d have to be quick, subsequently working day and night over the following weeks to create that software, with Gates skipping classes and Allen showing up to his job at Honeywell late and leaving early, getting only a few hours of sleep a night as they plugged away.
You might at this point be wondering how they created such software given they didn’t actually have an Altair 8800- in fact, at this point nobody did. The picture on the cover of Popular Electronics wasn’t even showing a working machine, but rather an empty case for the Altair 8800.
This turned out to be an advantage for them, as, thanks to Traf-o-Data, they already had a working emulator for the Intel 8008 that Allen had developed. Thus, they merely had to acquire the technical manual for the similar Intel 8080, and then tweak Allen’s emulator to work for it and the Altair 8800, with the whole thing running on the PDP-10 mainframe computer.
At the same time Allen was doing this, Gates headed up working on the BASIC interpreter itself, and a hired gun, Monte Davidoff, developing the needed math package.
Finally, in March of 1975, Allen headed to New Mexico to demonstrate their “Altair BASIC” to Roberts. The problem was Allen forgot the bootstrap program that contained the instructions to actually load their software in correctly. Thus, while traveling to New Mexico, he had to handwrite the needed assembly code for a bootstrap loader for the Altair 8800 from memory. Allen recounts what happened next in his book Idea Man:
The following morning with Ed [Roberts] and Bill Yates hanging over my shoulder I sat at the Altair console and toggled in my bootstrap loader on the front panel’s switches. Byte by byte… It took about 5 minutes and I hoped no one noticed how nervous I was. “This isn’t going to work,” I kept thinking.
I entered my twenty-first instruction, set the starting address and pressed the “Run” switch. The machine’s lights took on a diffused red glow as the 8080 executed the loader’s multiple steps. At least that much seemed to be working.
I turned the paper tape reader and the teletype chugged as it pulled our BASIC interpreter through. At 10 characters per second, reading the tape took 7 minutes… At the end I pressed stop and reset the address to 0.
My index finger poised over the “Run” switch once again.
To that point I couldn’t be sure of anything… “There’s just no way this is going to work.”
I pressed “Run”.
The teletype’s printer clattered to life, I gawked at the upper case characters. I couldn’t believe it. But there it was, “Memory Size”.
“Hey,” said Bill Yates, “It printed something.”
It was the first time he or Ed had seen an Altair do anything beyond a small memory test. They were flabbergasted. I was dumbfounded. We all gaped at the machine for a few seconds. And then I typed in the total number of bytes in the 7 memory cards- 7168.
“OK,” the Altair spit back.
Getting this far told me that 5% of our BASIC was definitely working. But we weren’t yet home free. The acid test would be a standard command that we’d used as a midterm exam for our software back in Cambridge. It relied on Bill’s core coding and Monty’s floating point math, and even my crunch code, which condensed certain words like “Print” into a single character. If it worked, the lion’s share of our BASIC was good to go. If it didn’t, we’d failed.
I typed in the command- PRINT 2+2. The machine’s response was instantaneous- 4.
That was a magical moment. Ed exclaimed “Oh my God! It printed 4!” He’d gone into debt and bet everything on a fully functioning microcomputer, and now it looked as though his vision would come true. He couldn’t get over the fact that Bill and I had solved the puzzle without any of the hardware. That was astonishing to him. But Ed wasn’t as surprised as I was that our 8080 BASIC had run perfectly it’s first time out of the chute…
“Let’s try a real program,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
Yates pulled out a book called 101 BASIC computer games… I typed in the [Lunar Lander] program. Yates launched his lunar module and after a few tries settled it safely on the Moon’s surface. Everything in our BASIC had worked.
Ed said, “I want you to come back to my office.” Through a flimsy looking doorway I took a seat at his desk… “You’re the first guy who came in and showed us something,” he said. “We want you to draw up a license so we can sell this with the Altair. We can work out the terms later.”
I couldn’t stop grinning. Once back at the hotel, I called Bill who was thrilled at the news. We were in business now. For real. In Harvard parlance, we were “golden”. I hardly needed a plane to fly back to Boston.
And so it was that “Micro-Soft” was born shortly thereafter on April 4, 1975.
Now, as you might imagine, at this point given all Gates and Allen had going on, it’s not outside of the question to think that Bill Gates probably always did have something to work on every day from then on throughout his 20s.
While that’s not exactly concrete proof that he literally never took a single day off, as noted, Gates was well-known for his punishing, self-imposed work schedule, supposedly working anywhere between 80 and 120 hours per week, every week until his 31st birthday. Gates’ secretary in the 1980s would also reportedly frequently find him sleeping on the floor of his office on a Monday after he’d stayed at the office the entire weekend working. In one instance, he was literally just sprawled out on the floor- no blankets, pillows or anything. She claims she actually thought he might have passed out, but upon investigation, he had apparently just laid down on the floor and unceremoniously went to sleep.
Allen also recounts in Idea Man, during particularly long working sessions, Gates could commonly be seen putting his forehead on the desk mid-line of code, nap for a few minutes, then snap awake and get right back to work on the line of code he’d stopped at without further pause.
Of course, incredible work ethic and things to keep you busy with are one thing, not having one single day out of 3,650 where a family gathering, illness, travel, arrest (Gates was arrested in 1977 for running a stop sign, speeding, and driving without a license), where no work was done is another. That said, even in these cases, if they occurred, presumably Gates was still thinking about or managed to get a few hours of work in here or there; and a travel trip for work still can potentially count.
Whatever the case, it would seem from all evidence at hand, whether it’s literally true, it certainly is probably close enough that even Gates himself, known for his incredible memory, can’t remember taking a single day off.
So that was Gates then, what about now? Well, having a girlfriend and then a wife, changes things, and it is no coincidence that around the time Gates started dating the 23 year old Melinda French in 1987 when he was around 31 that he appears to have let up considerably on his breakneck work schedule. He says of this, “Once I got into my thirties… by then some kind of natural behavior kicked in and I loved weekends, and my girlfriend liked vacations, and that turned out to be kind of a neat thing. Now, I take lots of vacations. My 20-year-old self is so disgusted with my current self.”
That said, Gates, being incredibly passionate about saving as many lives as possible, still maintains a busy schedule, adhering to his mother, Mary Gates’, challenge in a letter to Melinda shortly before Bill and she were married, and not long before Mary would die of cancer. The message to Melinda was this- “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” This letter is still something Bill and Melinda have to this day.
Thus, even today, Gates’ daily work schedule is still incredibly regimented, planned out by his assistants in 5 minute increments, with it being noted by those who work with him that one of Gates’ biggest pet peeves is people wasting his time.
This brings us around to what Gates does with his off time now that he has it.
To begin with, Gates schedules a significant amount of time to be a very hands-on father, including lots of family vacations. In fact, he even states his evening routine usually includes doing the dishes as, to quote, “other people volunteer but I like the way I do it.”
And if you’re now thinking doing the dishes seems rather ordinary for a billionaire who could literally hire a team of Shaolin Monks to perform a Buddhist water ritual before bathing the dishes in the blessed water, followed by having an army of custom made robots scrub them clean and put them away, well, it turns out much of Bill Gates’ free time is peppered with the rather ordinary, though occasionally with an extraordinary twist.
Despite being a man who could afford to do, well, anything within the realm of possible for any human to do, Gates has noted that his favourite hobby is reading, with books also being the most common gift he receives from friends and family, if you’re wondering what the answer is to the question of “What do you get a billionaire for his birthday?”
As to what his favorite book is, he states, “My favorite of the last decade is Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature. It is a long but profound look at the reduction in violence and discrimination over time.” (And, just FYI, you can also find many, many more book recommendations from him on his website gatesnotes.com)
A voracious reader, while he laments in his 20s there wasn’t really any time for reading, since then, Gates skims various periodicals each day and generally reads at least one book a week, even when traveling, usually on topics ranging from microbiology to tennis and he has a personal rule to never start reading more than two books at once.
Gates has reported that he frequently annoys his wife by staying up too late reading a book he can’t put down. “I’m a night person. If I have a good book, or I’m doing something on the computer, I have a tendency to stay up. I never tell Melinda I’m tired the next day or she’ll say it’s all my fault, but she can often tell. I’ll try to be energetic, and she’ll say, “You stayed up too late again.””
Beyond reading, Gates says another passion of his during his free time is to take online learning courses in a variety of areas.
As far as what he does when he gets out of the house, Gates has noted that he enjoys taking tours of things “like power plants [and] garbage dumps” with his children. Before you feel sorry for his kids, Gates expands that places he’s taken them on private tours of include the Large Hadron Collider, Arizona missile silos and simply “Antarctica”- all things we guess are a lot easier to arrange to visit when you’re a multi-billionaire.
Gates also says that he enjoys playing bridge, coding on his computer, and playing tennis- all things, outside of coding, that your grandparents probably also find fun and can afford to do.
As for bridge, he says, “My parents first taught me bridge, but I really started to enjoy it after playing with Warren Buffett. It takes a mix of strategy and teamwork to do well. We always find time to play a few games when we’re together.”
Buffet himself says of the game, “It’s the best exercise there is for the brain. You have to look at all the facts. You have to draw inferences from what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. You have to discard improper theories about what the hand had as more evidence comes in sometimes.”
Before bridge, Gates’ favorite card game was apparently poker, which he avidly played while at school in Harvard, with Allen claiming it wasn’t uncommon for Gates to win or lose hundreds of dollars a night playing.
At home, he and his family enjoy playing the board game Settlers of Catan, which Gates says, “…is a favorite in my family… Melinda, our kids, and I have spent many hours sitting around the table trading resources, building roads, and strategizing to be the first to reach 10 victory points.” In his youth, his favorite board game was reportedly Risk.
Speaking of that, as a younger man, Gates’ interests were a little more extreme, at least relatively speaking, and the billionaire was known for regular skiing trips, both on water and snow, which directly led to one of the most famous videos of him on the web. The one of him jumping clean over a chair from a standing position in a 1994 interview with CBS.
Gates has since explained that he began jumping over chairs as an exercise to hone his ski jumping abilities. Due to his unassuming, bookish looks, Gates’ amazing hops often surprised people and he is said to have greatly relished leaping over chairs as a party trick. When asked in 2013 during a Reddit AMA if he still occasionally jumps over chairs, Gates answer was simply, “Less than I used to”. He goes on, to those who might like to try similar stunts, “Be careful—it can hurt if you don’t succeed.” Which, if we’re being honest, is just a good bit of general advice at doing anything in life.
Speaking of skiing, Allen recounts that, in their late teens, Gates actually snapped his leg water skiing, and was supposed to remain in a cast for six weeks. However, getting the itch to go skiing again, after just three weeks, he took off his cast, revealing a black and blue leg, that nonetheless managed to hold up to the water skiing he once again immediately subjected it to.
It’s similarly noted that as a younger man Gates would do donuts in his car, nearly totaled a friend’s Porsche 928 while speeding, and used to like to run and then jump onto a banister to slide headfirst down it as yet another party trick.
In his elder years, Gates apparently still skis, though he notes that he’s “not as hard core” as he used to be and drives a modest (for a billionaire) Mercedes, Porsche, or, if with his family, a minivan.
Because yes, as alluded to, Gates takes being a hands on father extremely seriously, and, particularly when his kids were younger, could frequently be found driving they and their friends around to various places in said minivan.
Although, while that might all sound pretty ordinary, he did say in one such instance of a U2 concert, “We went to the concert with my daughter and three of her friends, so there were six of us and we took the minivan. I drove.” So what’s exciting about that? When asked if he got invited to go backstage, he simply replied no, but Bono was staying at his house at the time.
Speaking of turning doing ordinary things up to 11, while Gates generally plays tennis in the more mundane way, every now and then he does it instead by playing people like Roger Federer. Said Gates of this, “I wouldn’t say it was the most relaxing tennis game I’ve ever played, but it was a whole lot of fun.”
This brings us to another oft asked question about Bill Gates- outside of saving millions of lives with it, what does he spend his money on? The answer, again, is surprisingly mundane for a man worth more than some countries.
Gates, by his own admission, spends little money on elaborate day to day things (though he does admit to buying nice things for his wife), and even owns and uses an off the shelf run of the mill Microsoft computer. In fact, from a recent interview we saw with him, apparently the exact model this very article was edited on.
That said, he does occasionally splurge, such as that time he spent $30.8 million on Davinci’s Codex Leicester. And, you know, there’s the whole 66,000 square foot mansion he has on Lake Washington, currently valued at about $148 million, though he only paid $2 million for the land initially in 1988 and $63 million to have the mansion built that year. That said, when you crunch the numbers on inflation on that one, the presently valued $148 million estate originally cost about $139 million in today’s dollars, so only slightly beating inflation in value in the interim. Factoring in property taxes and upkeep over the years, as ever showing how house buying isn’t nearly as good of an investment in many cases as is often assumed.
The house, however, often functions for business uses as well, so kind of a work splurge as well. Similarly, his other big guilty pleasure is his private jet, which he first bought in 1997.
Going back to the more mundane, Gates’ taste when it comes to food are simple with his favourite food being an ordinary cheeseburger. And we’re not talking a cheeseburger made from cows blessed by the monks that do his dishes, then butchered on site and prepared by one of the world’s finest robot chefs. No, Gates’ go-to burgers are from Burger King, McDonald’s, and In-N-Out, with the latter apparently making his all time favorite cheeseburger.
His love of burgers is so well known that a colleague of his at the Gates foundation, Joe Cerrell, was once quoted as saying: “Hotel rooms full of Diet Coke. And cheeseburgers for lunch, no matter who you are. If you get the lunchtime slot with Bill, you’re eating burgers. Someone will always be sent to get bags of McDonald’s…”
It’s also noteworthy that during his time as a full time worker at Microsoft, he was known to frequent the same Greasy Spoon pretty much every day for lunch. For anyone curious, Gates apparently tipped extremely well.
On that note, Bill Gates and fellow money magnate Warren Buffet both have similar tastes in food, and love of McDonald’s. Consider this little anecdote revealed in the Bill and Melinda Gates 2017 annual letter in which Mr. Gates states,
Remember the laugh we had when we traveled together to Hong Kong and decided to get lunch at McDonald’s? You offered to pay, dug into your pocket, and pulled out…coupons! Melinda just found this photo of me and “the big spender.” It reminded us how much you value a good deal. That’s why we want to point you to this number, 122 million. Saving children’s lives is the best deal in philanthropy.
Speaking of which, according to the man himself, one the of the most frequently asked questions he receives is “how much money do you have on you right now?”. While the answer often varies, as it would with anyone, according to Gates, his wallet usually has a single $100 bill in it, if he carries the wallet at all, which he notes is infrequently- a common trend among the ultra wealthy as we illustrate in our article- What Does Bill Gates Carry Around in His Wallet?
But to sum up, in short, despite being one of the richest men on the planet, Bill Gates is a surprisingly down to Earth guy who enjoys the simple and cheap pleasures of life. Though, of course, as illustrated in the U2/Bono anecdote, he sometimes enjoys all those simple things in mildly extraordinary ways, such as eating said McDonald’s in a truly massive mansion and flying off in a private jet when he feels like traveling. But, getting to the airport, well, apparently that sometimes occurs in a mini-van driven by the man himself.
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