I spent 20 minutes with Bill Gates — here's what I learned

Photo: Pierre Suu/Getty Images.

Bill Gates is the wealthiest human alive, the person primarily responsible for making personal computers a commonplace thing in much of the world, and the head of an NGO so powerful that it can set its sights on an infectious disease and help remove it from the earth.

The New York Times described him as “a bit like an unofficial head of state,” which makes sense. Given his personal net worth of a reported $87.4 billion and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s endowment of nearly $40 billion, it’s hard to think of anybody wielding more power whose last name isn’t Obama or Merkel.

Last Monday, I had 20 minutes of conversation with the man.

Gates was in New York City to talk about the release of his Annual Letter. The day of, I was uncharacteristically distracted, irritable, and dressed up.

Then, at 2 pm, the interview happened. Next to a conference table in a super lux Midtown Manhattan hotel, I shook hands with Gates and a handler who would be tracking the time.

In person, he’s much like you’d imagine from the endless reports that have been done on him: appreciably geeky, pleasantly courteous, and intensely intelligent.

When he speaks, Gates makes broad gestures, seemingly sculpting clean energy solutions with his hands while reeling off global development statistics, like how tiny China’s philanthropic class is (under .1% of the overall economy), how huge the energy market is ($3 trillion a year), and how humanity has gone from 33% of children dying by age 5 to below 5%.

The interview was a total, immersive flow.

After finishing his answer about the political priorities of the US, his handler stopped the interview, Gates popped up, we shook hands again, and he was out.

I looked at my phone — 20:00 minutes exactly.

That’s what’s so remarkable about Gates. He’s a human being, like you or me. But he’s also a force of nature — one whose time is managed down to the second.

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