Bill Gates’ Harvard commencement address is being circulated widely in Silicon Valley — and with good reason. He gave an outstanding speech (rather, he wrote an outstanding speech — he cannot deliver a speech to save his life).
In the tradition of commencement speeches, Gates reminded grads of their social obligations, of their 21st century noblesse oblige that is in most cases technology-enabled. His address was inspired by George Marshall, whose Harvard commencement speech outlined his famous plan to rebuild postwar Europe. The Wall Street Journal reports that Gates saw a copy of Marshall’s speech on the wall of the waiting area prior to meeting with Marshall’s successor, Condoleeza Rice.
Dr. Rice should keep her visitors waiting more often. In his evocation of Marshall, Gates was thoughtful and eloquent. In the manner of commencement speakers everywhere, he denounced complacency — this time by asserting that complexity is the underlying foe. Even a guy as smart as Gates cannot always tell the two apart, however. To hear him evoke the untold suffering of poor children is to recall Joseph Stalin’s cynical smear that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.
“I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world – the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair. I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences….
“But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries- but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
“Imagine, just for the sake of discussion, that you had a few hours a week and a few dollars a month to donate to a cause – and you wanted to spend that time and money where it would have the greatest impact in saving and improving lives. Where would you spend it? For Melinda and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.
“During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One disease I had never even heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million kids each year – none of them in the United States.
“We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.
“If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”
So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”
“The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.
“But you and I have both….
“All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing – not because we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known how to help, we would have acted.
The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.
Gates, finally in possession of his college degree, closed with a challenge that made him sound like a child of the sixties not a recipient of an honorary Doctorate:
“Members of the Harvard Family: Here in the Yard is one of the great collections of intellectual talent in the world. What for?
“There is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of people here and around the world. But can we do more? Can Harvard dedicate its intellect to improving the lives of people who will never even hear its name?
“Let me make a request of the deans and the professors – the intellectual leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:
“Should our best minds be dedicated to solving our biggest problems?… When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.
“In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue – a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.
“Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives…
Give Gates credit: he has done more with his fortune to improve humanity than almost any billionaire on the planet. The tasteless question is however, unavoidable: was Gates using Harvard to try to outdo the outstanding “Stay hungry, stay foolish” speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford two years ago?
The comparison is revealing. Bill and Steve have competed with each other in a very personal way for three decades — and the entire world has benefited. Jobs still plays Athens to Gate’s Rome — always Thomas Edison to Gate’s George Westinghouse.
Both are mellowing however, and they recently had interesting, even insightful things to say about each other when the Wall Street Journal got them on stage together at a conference near San Diego.
Jobs, playing the poet without effort, cited Paul McCartney “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead”. These reflections were a far cry from his famous and accurate assessment of two years ago that Microsoft lacked taste, in a deep way. Both men have come a long ways.