Bill and Melinda Gates think that empathetic optimism is at the root of the most important innovations.
In mid-June, the Gates gave the commencement address for Stanford University, and the over-arching theme of the speech was the power of optimism.
“Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering,” Bill says.
Both Gates shared stories about times when they witnessed heart-breaking circumstances. Bill described visiting an over-crowded tuberculosis hospital in South Africa that felt like “hell with a waiting list.” The people there had MDR-TB — multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis — which has a cure rate of under 50 per cent. The hospital was extremely depressing, but Gates didn’t let that reduce his optimism: Instead he left with an even fiercer determination to figure out a solution to this crushing problem. Now, several years later, there’s a new TB drug regime in its third phase of testing that could boost patients’ cure rates to between 80 and 90%.
“Optimism is often dismissed as false hope,” Gates says. “But there is also false hopelessness. That’s the attitude that says we can’t defeat poverty and disease. We absolutely can.”
Melinda shared a story about meeting sex workers in India who were regarded so poorly in their society that had no hope of restitution even if they were raped, robbed, or beaten. They were made to feel worthless. Over the last ten years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped those women and others like them build support groups to empower each other and help educate others about safe sex. The community that formed through those support groups became a platform for the women to improve their lives in other ways, like setting up speed-dial networks to respond to violent attacks and helping each other build savings.
“Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better,” she says. “It’s a conviction that we can make things better — that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away.”
The Gates believe that having your heart break at someone else’s situation is a necessary step towards propelling innovation. Combining empathy with optimism is powerful.
Don’t turn away from suffering, Melinda says, turn toward it. “That is the moment when change is born.”