Now for something completely different: Bill Gates

July 14, 2008

There’s good reason to be optimistic about the departure of Bill Gates from his role atop Microsoft, and it’s not a mean-spirited one.

By focusing his attention on his charitable foundation, taking aiming at malaria, AIDS and poverty, he is putting himself in a position where he could once again achieve a dramatic breakthrough, as he once did in the computer world.

Gates is a conceptual innovator, a type of inventor who usually achieves the most at an early age. Gates, for example, founded the company that became Microsoft at age 19.

When conceptual innovators get older, they tend to get stale. But not if they switch to a new field of inquiry. When they start afresh in a new area, they can achieve new successes — much more so than if they stayed put. As the Arts of Innovation Web site states:

When you reach middle age, don’t worry if you find yourself in a mid-life crisis, because a mid-life shift could bring with it the potential for new breakthroughs in a new field. For mid-life role models, consider Benjamin Franklin, Walt Disney and David Hockney.

Similarly, conceptual innovator Samuel Morse abandoned a career in art in mid-life and soon invented the telegraph.

“To choose such formidable foes [as malaria and poverty] in the middle of your life takes bags of self-belief, but it is also pragmatic,” as The Economist notes.

That magazine’s recent article on “The Meaning of Bill Gates” describes a conceptual innovator who knows it’s time to move on:

“His genius was to understand what he needed and work out how to obtain it.”


“As with many great innovations, Mr Gates’s vision has come to seem so obvious that it is hard to imagine the world any other way. Yet, early on, he grasped … hings that were far from obvious at the time, and he grasped them more clearly and pursued them more fiercely than his rivals did.”

Now, perhaps like Disney, Morse, Franklin and Hockney, he can make new conceptual breakthroughs in his newly chosen field.