Bill, dude, stop cramming for the future

bill gates.jpg

I have presumed to comment on Bill Gates and Microsoft on a couple of occasions. I take this as one of the rights of a share holder. It may look like presumption. It may even walk and talk like presumption. But I prefer to think of it as a way of protecting my investment.

Alarming news recently in the Wall Street Journal. Twice a year, Bill seeks refuge in a modest waterfront cottage for one of his “Think Weeks.” No one may disturb him, not his family, not his fellow managers. For these seven days, Bill contemplates the future of technology.

No, he doesn’t. He reads white papers till he can’t see straight.

He starts the morning in bed poring through papers mostly by Microsoft engineers, executives and product managers and scribbling notes on the covers. Skipping breakfast, he patterns upstairs in his stocking feet to read more papers. Noon and dinnertime bring him back downstairs to read papers over meals at the kitchen table…

On a Think Day in February, Bill has read 56 papers by Day 4. His record is 112 for the week. Sometimes he reads till 2 in the morning. Sometimes he reads around the clock. Often he reads till giddy. (In one poignant moment in the WSJ story, Bill is so exhausted that he begins to vocalize the words he finds in a report on speech synthesis.)

Dude, this is not the way a man of great power and intelligence spends his time. Two words: “executive summary.” Hire very smart people to read and precise these papers. Your job, if I may presume to say so, is to imagine how all the bits and pieces go together. Your job is to imagine the most potent configurations all these possibilities might take.

Most managers, academics, and creatives are in the “pattern recognition” business. They hire us for this, that or the other thing, but the place we create value is in those moments when suddenly we see a pattern that briefly configures all the buzzing confusion out there into something that is perhaps a plausible future. It might be wrong, but in a time of great dynamism, error (thoughtful, well grounded error) is much to be preferred to confusion.

Can we engage in pattern recognition when we are giddy with exhaustion, when we have read the fine detail of a great piece of engineering, when we have devoted ourselves to 60 closely worded pages on “identity theft” on the internet? No! Pattern recognition takes a little perspective, a bigger picture, a little distance, and time to think.

And this happens only when we turn things over to the extraordinary powers of the unconscious mind, a device so powerful it makes the conscious mind look like the original rule bound, bureaucratic, bean counter. When we are stuffing our heads with 112 reports in a week, these deeper powers simply fall quiet. They spend all their time sorting and filing. There is no time for re/re/reconfiguration.

This is the favorite technique of the unconscious mind. I can hear my own obsessing in its search for a pattern. “What about this?” “What about this?” “What about this?” It is configuring and reconfiguring and configuring again. Occasionally, the conscious mind will say, “actually [it likes to patronize the unconscious mind shamelessly], that’s pretty good. We can work with that.” The unconscious mind does not take umbrage. It has gone back to its obsessive search for that more perfect pattern.

Sometimes, this happens happen. There are moments when the unconscious moment knows that it’s got something and then it comes in triumph. (This is the moment it replies to patronizing attitude of the conscious mind with its own “can’t touch this” arrogance. And, yes, my unconscious likes to quote badly dated hip hop song and dance men like MC Hammer. It’s sad, really. I’m sure your unconscious mind is a little hipper.)

There is that Svaha moment when we know we have an idea, but we don’t know what the idea is. We can feel it rising (funny that it always feels like rising, like the mind actually buys the Freudian, and not just Freudian, notion that it arranges vertically) and the rising only takes about, oh, 2 second, but those two seconds are joyful. We have it. It will be marvelous. Hey, presto, it is marvelous. Can’t touch this.

It’s as if Bill is cramming. What is the point of reading till exhausted, till the text swims before his eyes. We can’t cram for the future. All those white papers are nothing if not a tower of babel, each of them its own carefully worded, brilliant executed concept of the new, all of them together a blinding set of competing assumptions and discordant points of view. The “fine print” here will kill you. We have one option: to go with our strength, the deepest powers of pattern recognition at our disposal.

My advice: Dude, get out of the cottage. Stop reading, start walking. We know how Hollywood would do this. You are walking on a rainy, wind swept beach (creativity’s objective correlative). One of Beethoven’s late quartets supplies the music under (to show the rigor, beauty and power of the thought within). You are accompanied by a happy golden retriever who really wants to fetch that stick Bill is carrying. But his urgings go ignored. For Bill is sightless with contemplation. The gaze has turned within. Things figure, configure, and reconfigure. Patterns form and release. Form and release. Then… “You know, that could be something.”

There is something eerie about this image because, cue the idealists, what is happening in this head is not merely a contemplation but a construction of the future. When you are Bill Gates, what you decide, finally, is the future has, of course, a pretty good chance of becoming the future.

Just so. As a share holder, I am obliged to say that reading yourself weary does not bode well. Less is more. Figures (literary ones, that is) are better than facts. Patterns better than papers. The future belongs more surely to those who give it a chance to form.


Guth, Robert A. 2005. In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future. Wall Street Journal. March 28, 2005.

12 thoughts on “Bill, dude, stop cramming for the future

  1. DK

    Maybe he reads all them papers so he knows what NOT to do…just a thought that sprang up from the subconcious 🙂


  2. brian

    I think self control is necessary. No reading Wall Street Journal articles that are inserted on page 1 simply because it is a slow news day.

    Having read the article myself, however, I now worry for the unintended consequences of immoral reporting — that grilled cheese sandwiches and diet orange crush will sweep the nation as the next health food craze of the cultural cognoscenti and Hollywood glitterati…

    I can almost see our senior medicare elders sneaking across the southern US border to re-import “tortas de queso preparado al parilla” and cases of “crush naranja”

    Thanks Bill !!
    And thanks WSJ !!

  3. brian

    I think self control is necessary. No reading Wall Street Journal articles that are inserted on page 1 simply because it is a slow news day.

    Having read the article myself, however, I now worry for the unintended consequences of immoral reporting — that grilled cheese sandwiches and diet orange crush will sweep the nation as the next health food craze of the cultural cognoscenti and Hollywood glitterati…

    I can almost see our senior medicare elders sneaking across the southern US border to re-import “tortas de queso preparado al parilla” and cases of “crush naranja”

    Thanks Bill !!
    And thanks WSJ !!

  4. Brian

    Perhaps he’s cramming for the future, in a desperate attempt to avoid having someone do to him what he did to the software industry.

    Meanwhile the thing you’ll never see in whitepapers is lurking in the sun, about to swoop down and blast away at close range . . .

  5. steve

    The macho display of cramming seems a bit adolescent to me–setting records on how many papers you can read, for crying out loud–but the article makes it clear that this is a management exercise, not a conceptual one. Most of these papers are proposals from Microsofties to be given resources to execute research and product-development programs. (He does read a couple of summary papers that are generated by in-house experts, just as Grant advises, but the overwhelming bulk of these papers appear to be innovation proposals.) So it’s more a matter of allocating resources across projects than it is coming up with a grand scheme. Arguably, looking at all the proposals in a short period of time allows one to make better comparisons than if they were dribbled out over the course of a year.

    It would be very much against the Microsoft culture and ethos, as I understand it, for Gates to allow staffers to mediate between him and the idea proposers. Then he would be just another corporate bureaucrat (I’d say “suit” but that doesn’t apply much at MS) rather than the all-knowing, hyperintelligent geek whose mythos powers the company. Gates is famous for walking into meetings with line developers and peppering them with very specific questions and critiicisms. They are famous for grilling prospective employees with brain-twisters and Fermi problems. The whole self-image of the company is that they are the smartest and most on top of things. The boss must therefore be the smartest and most on top.

  6. Tom Guarriello

    Ah, but you’re asking the duckling to become a swan, Grant. This is the method that has made Bill, well, Bill. How could he forsake it now? That requires another kind of intelligence, a poetic, dwelling consciousness, not a voraciously competitive one.

    112 white papers? Might be tough, but, hey, who knows?

    Steve’s right, “adolescent” is the perfect characterization.

    Could it be that the rest of the company gives him this stuff to do so he’ll stay out of their hair?

    No, that’s stupid.

    What would a Zen-conscious Bill Gates look like, do you think?

  7. Ennis

    What Steve said. Bill G gets involved at a nitty gritty levels of the company, which really slows it down, but is also one of their hallmarks.

  8. Susan

    Maybe it’s the label that is incorrect. Maybe this is indeed his resource allocation time. Maybe he does something else for inspiration. Like use the cottage but leave the papers at home. We just didn’t hear about those two weeks.

  9. Carol

    Intense intake of info fills the brain with material that will be processed in a variety of ways: forgetting, finding patterns, making associations with old information or previous wisdom, or putting into dreams. Dreaming is the unconscious’ way in integrating these disparate bits into a Whole that makes sense. Dreams are marvelous and creative ways to make sense of nonsense. Welcome your wise DreamMaker.

  10. Ian Smith

    Sometimes we loose sight of the little picture when we look for the big picture. I have read some of these white papers when I worked doing Microsoft Tech Support.

    One was a discussion of how much time it would save to remotely format, remotely install windows and remotely configure the machine. The hardware should simply accept this action and move on. It would work well for some corporate networks where users aren’t supposed to have any data on their machines.

    In the margin was scrawled a little note, converted to a footnote for publication. “Perhaps there should be a security mechanism for this.” Now this new hardware standard would have been the standard for all PCs, not just corporate networks.

    If two 12 year olds were playing video games together and one of them was rude, the other could remotely format and install a new OS on the parents home business computer. No more home business.

    Peer review caught this potential from becoming a reality. Yes there are lots of other security holes, from voting systems running windows to college students writing term papers. These are all windows errors, not hardware issues. (If this standard became reality, they could do the same thing to my linux machines which are secure against almost everything.)

    This is a long pedantic example, but it takes something specific to point out why specifics are important.

    You don’t want an executive summary over and above someone who groks.

  11. chelsea hendrickson

    i wish there would be more pitures or at least one of bill gates he’s so famous. why not put a picture of bill and his family.

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