Bill Gates takes risks that very few people in this world will.
He took a risk in 1975, when he dropped out of Harvard to build Microsoft. In 2008, he took a risk in leaving Microsoft to work full-time at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
And in 2013, he took another gamble, when his foundation contributed to a $5.5 billion initiative to tackle one of the most ambitious public-health goals ever set: eradicating polio.
Those big bets have paid off — polio still remains a problem in certain parts of the world, but significant improvements, such as the development of effective vaccinations, have been made since Gates got involved — which proves that taking big risks and achieving great success can go hand in hand.
But how does one determine which risks are worth taking, and which ones aren't?
That's a question the Microsoft co-founder explored in a recent blog post, in which he talks about Netflix's new series, "Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates." A major theme in the documentary is Gates' willingness to invest time and money into projects that have no guarantee of success.
"Watching the series got me thinking about what the word 'risk' really means," Gates wrote in his post. "Whether we invest $100,000 or $100 million, the decision is always calculated. I spend a lot of time thinking, analyzing data and talking to experts to judge whether we can really help make a difference."
But Gates says no matter how much analysis one does, it's important to be comfortable with uncertainty. "We are tackling problems where progress is measured not just in years, but often decades — where your end goal doesn't change, but your path to get there might have to."
Gates' trick to being comfortable with uncertainty, he explained, is to continue learning and be open to new strategies that can bring him closer to his goals. "That approach has guided every big bet I've made in my career from Microsoft to today, including polio."
A willingness to take risks is important, but Gates emphasized another key point: a good bet is based on proper models, not a hunch. In the decision to take on polio, Gates said he had a model in mind, and that model was the history of smallpox: the only human disease ever successfully wiped out.
Ultimately, Gates said his approach to taking risks is "very similar to what Warren Buffett does when he makes an investment on on a bet, that it will be worth 10 times as much down the road."
"Warren spends a lot of time looking for a company that has great long-term prospects. Then he makes a big investment and holds it for many years," Gates explained. "He's famous for staying the course through market gyrations and economic cycles."
Like Buffett, Gates also picks his projects carefully, looking for ones that will make a difference and create better lives for generations to come. Analyzing whether achieving a certain goal can really help make a difference is what Gates loves most about his job: "I'm never happier than when I'm diving deep into the details of a problem."
Of course, deciding what risks to take is never easy. "I also feel pressure to make every dollar and every day count," he wrote. "I say no to a lot more opportunities than I say yes to."
Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert, cross-industry innovation leader and Vice President of Innovation at Massive Alliance. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal.
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