Leadership

4 lessons from Bill Gates’ Harvard commencement speech Mark Zuckerberg should study

In a short video posted to Twitter, Harvard announced that Mark Zuckerberg would be giving the keynote address at the university's 366th commencement in May.

In Tuesday's announcement, Zuckerberg jokes with fellow Harvard-dropout-turned-tech-titan Bill Gates, who delivered the address in 2007, about finally getting a diploma.

"They know we didn't actually graduate, right?" Zuckerberg asks Gates.

"Oh, that is the best part! They actually give you a degree!" Gates quips.

As the founder and CEO of Facebook prepares his remarks, here are four of the most poignant and inspiring pieces of advice from Gates' own Harvard commencement speech.

Get to know the wider world

"Taking a serious look back … I do have one big regret," Gates said. "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."

It was decades after Gates dropped out of Harvard that he became seriously involved in philanthropy. His first trip to Africa in 1993 profoundly affected him and wife Melinda.

"You graduates came to Harvard at a different time. You know more about the world's inequities than the classes that came before. In your years here, I hope you've had a chance to think about how, in this age of accelerating technology, we can finally take on these inequities, and we can solve them."

Bill Gates
Photo by Darren McCollester
Bill Gates

Find simple solutions to complex problems

"The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity. To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact. But complexity blocks all three steps," the co-founder of Microsoft said.

The world's most pervasive problems are often drowned out by the most controversial news of the day.

"Complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares, and that makes it hard for their caring to matter." -Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft

"Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring," Gates said. "If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks 'How can I help?,' then we can get action and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares, and that makes it hard for their caring to matter."

To make meaningful change, Gates said, there must be clear identification of a problem and a straightforward way for people to contribute to a solution.

Tell human stories

Having data about the work you are doing is critical, but stories about how real people are affected are even more important. Stories help strangers connect.

"I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person's life, then multiply that by millions," Gates said. "Yet this was the most boring panel I've ever been on, ever. So boring even I couldn't bear it."

"My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here, never stopped pressing me to do more for others." -Bill Gates

Push yourself to do more for others who have less

Gates learned about the importance of helping others from his mother.

"My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here, never stopped pressing me to do more for others," Gates told the Harvard graduating class. "A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said, 'From those to whom much is given, much is expected.'"

Gates has taken his mother's words to heart. Worth almost $87 billion, he is also one of the founding members of The Giving Pledge, through which wealthy individuals commit to donating more than half of their fortune. He is also the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works to lift children out of extreme poverty.

Thanks to increased connectivity, Gates said graduates have a greater awareness of problems and a greater ability to find solutions.

"You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort."

No small challenge, indeed. "Good luck," Gates added.