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Ask HN: Is Bill Gates smart?
24 points by roadnottaken on Oct 26, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 19 comments
A colleague of mine is meeting Bill Gates in the near future and is pretty nervous about the interaction (a lot of money is at stake). As such, my co-workers and I have been discussing whether or not Bill Gates is extremely smart? Just lucky? Both? Is it pure drive/ambition? Has anyone out there interacted with him enough to know if he's smarter than your average really-smart-person or if it's just some combination of right-place-at-the-right-time and reasonable intelligence. Opinions?

Would you be more/less nervous to meet him than other extremely successful CEOs (e.g. Jobs, Brin, Zuckerberg, etc)?

I'm having trouble grasping the relevancy of this question. But regardless of that, how could you not consider the man smart? Steve Ballmer might be lucky, but Bill Gates is most certainly a very smart and talented man.

I would also add that it's not his intelligence that would intimidate me, but more so his wealth of experience. His bullshit detectors are probably off the charts, considering that he's heard and seen every business pitch known to man.

If I was your friend I would just try to be as honest and upfront as possible. You're not going to sell Bill Gates on anything, but you can convince him you're someone that's worth dealing with.

Also consider how much he must optimize his attention compared to other people:


He simply has to think differently than most.

I was a classmate of Gates (he was a year behind me). We took some CS classes in common, and had a passing acquaintance.

Let me assure you he's smarter than your average really-smart-person. He's also more determined. ;-)

He had to do Math 55 to realize that there were people smarter than he was. Not too many people can readily appreciate what this means. I think you have to have participated in national-level math competitions to be able to understand the quality of person it takes to do this.

It reminds of the line from Good Will Hunting where the Professor says that only a handful of people in the world were smart enough to even tell the difference, even though it was grand, between himself and Will.

If your definition of a 'really-smart person' is someone who can ace the SATs or get into Harvard, then you probably won't be able to tell the difference between such a person and Bill Gates. There is a world of difference between the level of intelligence required to ace the SATs and level required to handle Math 55.

Math 55 rates its own fairly detailed Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Math_55

For graduate study, US News and World Report currently ranks it a hair under MIT, along with Princeton, Stanford and UCB (http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-gradu...). Harvard has been strong in math for a long time.

I've always thought there are lots of people smart-enough to do well at Harvard, but not too many that are smart-enough to drop out for good reasons and go on to be successful.

A colleague of mine is meeting Bill Gates in the near future and is pretty nervous about the interaction...

A colleague of ours (HN name spolsky) met with Bill Gates in the past and was pretty nervous about that interaction:


Gates is smarter than most people you'll ever meet. As a freshman, he proved tighter upper and lower bounds on the pancake sorting problem than had previously existed.

Yes, his professor told him in class that X was the tightest bounds currently in existence. He came back a few days later and said "I'm pretty sure I have faster." He was right.

Around 5 years ago, I read an interview given by Bill Gates. In that, the inteviewer remarked about Gates' reputation for having in-depth knowledge on diverse subjects. And the interviewer asked, if Gates could just understand anything and everything.

I don't recall the exact wording of it, but this is the gist of it as I recall:

"I read a lot, on very diverse subjects. There are a lot of things that I do not understand at first read. But irrespective of whether I understand it or not, I complete reading them. Then I re-read them. I re-read to the extent that I want to understand them in depth."

Also, he claimed in the interview that he completely avoids watching TV, that he instead spends time reading.

May be that is the secret to his smartness.

The New Yorker had an article about Gates' involvement in fighting malaria in Africa (synopsis: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/10/24/051024fa_fact_sp...).

That article paints Gates as extremely quick. For example, it recounts an episode (touched on in the synopsis) where Gates was given a reading list by somebody who was used to potential donors wanting to get involved. Unlike most of them, Gates came back having read and synthesized most if not everything on the list.

I don't remember much about that article anymore, but I remember coming away from it thinking a lot more highly of him, both in terms of his intelligence and his willingness to use his skills in the service of others.

I met him maybe ten years ago, and the one thing I would say to your colleague is that he has zero tolerance for BS. If you're pitching him, you have every reason to be nervous.

After reading the Wikipedia article and so forth, yes the man was smart.

For instance it says he was writing business software as a teenager. It also says that Altair BASIC was initially written on an emulator, which was itself written by him! We're already at the clever and talented point right there.

"He scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT[19] and enrolled at Harvard College..." isn't a perfect indicator but suggestive also. He might have had other breaks in life but smarts would have been one of them.

If Math 55 is any indication, yes.

Hi Mr. Gates. Don't worry; we all still think you're very very smart.

LOL! I wish :)

As a lower bound, you can have a look at this joint paper with Christos Papadimitriou from 1976: http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~christos/papers/Bounds%20For%20S...

Yes, very smart. But your friend shouldnt be intimidated. Every good entrepreneur has the potential to make moves as smart or even smarter than Bill Gates did.

You have to be smart to be lucky and lucky to be smart.

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