Bill Gates On Why The World Needs To Be Less Cynical And Start Focusing On Real Problems

Read the philanthropist’s answers to questions from the Internet about his myriad projects around the world–and if he’d bother to pick up a $100 bill if he saw it on the ground.

Bill Gates On Why The World Needs To Be Less Cynical And Start Focusing On Real Problems

Bill Gates did an informative public Q&A on Reddit yesterday, part of the Internet community’s regular “Ask Me Anything” feature. We learned a lot of quirky tidbits about the world’s biggest philanthropist, including the fact that he hates being called that because many other, less wealthy individuals make much larger personal sacrifices in obscurity. We also learned he’d still pick up a $100 bill if he found one on the street (but he’d donate it), that he considers owning a private airplane his greatest guilty pleasure, and that he won’t try to artificially prolong his life until that’s an option available to most normal people too. He also does the dishes every night. In summary: Bill Gates–a pretty good guy.


Aside from the fun he had, Gates also said some pretty important things about his philanthropic vision and various endeavors. Here are a couple of highlights worth considering in more detail:

Misplaced Cynicism Is Our Biggest Barrier To Improving The World

According to Gates, the greatest tragedy in the world is kids who die or are malnourished and can’t achieve their potential either physically or mentally. The solutions are simple: vaccines and nutrition. He says: “We are making progress but not fast enough. Cynicism is our biggest barrier.”

Gates addressed this issue in longer depth recently in his annual letter, in which he focused on dispelling the myth that foreign aid is a waste. Yesterday, before leaving his Reddit chat, he asked the Reddit community for their communications advice on this point: “How can we help more people understand that foreign aid isn’t 25% or even 10% of the U.S. federal budget, but less than 1%?”

The Biggest Single Issue In the U.S. Is Reforming Education

Gates believes that improving the education system is the single most important domestic issue in the United States, “since it is key to individual opportunity and to the country as a whole and we are not doing as well as other countries.” He also makes some interesting points about how people need to encourage politicians to focus on problems, not scoring points:

“I wish the debate about education would focus on helping teachers improve and what we know about that. Right now it is caught up in state versus federal and testing versus no-testing. In general politics needs to focus on the problems rather than attacking the other side. Asian countries are helping their teachers improve and the impact is huge.”

On When Philanthropy Has Failed

Startups are famous for the mantra of trying to celebrate and learn from their failures. Gates, arguably the most successful technology startup founder of all time, still takes this idea to heart in being frank about where his foundation has failed.


“A lot of our failures have been backing science that didn’t work out. One thing that is tough is when you think the government will take over something you start but they don’t–we had that with a school lunch program. It might have been better if we hadn’t done it.”

Why The NSA Needs To Be More Open

Gates noted that privacy is going to become more and more important as cameras and GPS sensors become more ubiquitous. There will have to be a balancing act in regard to this complex issue. He says: “We need to have trust in the way information is protected and gathered. There is a role for the government to try and stop crime and terrorism but it will have to be more open. I do think terrorism with biological or nuclear weapons is something we want to minimize the chance of.”

On The Hunt For Better Condoms, Nuclear Power, And Polio Prevention:

Bill Gates has his fingers in a lot of pies. Gates fielded some questions related to his more ambitious projects, and made an (intended?) condom pun, to boot.

On a contest to design a more appealing condom: “This is a sensitive topic. The idea was that men don’t like the current design so perhaps something they would be more open to would allow for less HIV transmission. We still haven’t gotten the results.”

On the progress of TerraPower, the nuclear power startup that is building a new kind of fission reactor (Gates is a major investor): “We need low-cost energy that is totally reliable. Most renewables will require storage which is expensive to do this. Nuclear will make a contribution if we can make it safer, cheaper and deal with waste better. Terrapower has a design (on paper) that addresses all of these issues so now we are talking to countries about building it. It is a fourth-generation reactor design that uses depleted uranium.”

On how computer models can help eradicate the last of the polio disease: “We are very close. India just went three years with no cases. Pakistan is our toughest location right now because some parts of the Taliban have not allowed vaccinators to come in and have even attacked vaccinators. We are hopeful this will get resolved since no one wants their kid to be paralyzed. I spend a lot of time making sure the polio campaign is doing the best it can. We have great computer models that help guide our activities.”


All in all, it’s always interesting when Gates speak, and it’s even better when he jumps–on the jumping, he says he’s slowing down, but claims he still has got some skills.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.