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Silicon Handcuffs

At 45, Bill Gates may be unable to remove the silicon handcuffs of his past success.

Is Bill Gates washed up?

Yes.

With these few words, I probably qualify for admission to an insane asylum. Surely, I must be joking. The world’s richest man, a loser?

Yes, it’s downhill from here for Gates, who turns 45 this year. His slide has nothing to do with age (or the prospects for Microsoft, his corporation, either). Instead, his is a cautionary tale of all innovators who strike it rich, gain renown, then seek to continue innovating.

Before I explain, let me remind you why Gates is an icon for innovators, not just capitalists. He is the greatest innovator of my lifetime, the first person in the computer industry to understand the importance of building a technological system-by hook or by crook. While other computer pioneers sneer that Gates copied this or that, they fail to see that the greatest innovations of all are those that mesh discrete inventions of others in order to launch society-wide transformations. Gates did that. Not Gary Kildall or Alan Kay or Tim Berners-Lee.

So can Gates do it again? Can he do to the Web what he did for the desktop: create a durable standard that unlocked the value of thousands of inventions? Can Gates keep the fire?

Andy Grove, Intel’s spiritual leader, has stressed the need to stay paranoid (“only the paranoid survive” is his credo). But being paranoid isn’t enough to overcome the problem of how success corrupts American innovators.

We’ve all seen this with artists, but technologists pride themselves on the sort of hard-headedness that keeps the demons at bay. Yet this confidence is more myth than reality. Many innovators bask in the glory of their achievements, assuring that their innovative years are over.Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist, has shown convincingly that people who stay highly creative over a lifetime constantly gravitate toward the margins. Every time they gain acclaim, they move again to the margins-even at great cost to themselves financially and reputationally (for they may be ridiculed for abandoning a niche they dominate in order to strike out for unfamiliar territory).

To his credit, Gates is trying to move toward the margins. Giving up his role as chief executive officer at Microsoft suggests that he knows he must break the mold or stagnate. But in becoming Microsoft’s software chief, he hasn’t gone far enough afield. In fact, his new job-defining Microsoft’s technical goals and deciding how best to package and present its innovations-sounds a lot like his old job.

The sad truth is that Gates can’t free himself from the forces that are draining away his creativity. The world won’t let him go to the margins. He’s trapped in the silicon handcuffs of his own success. So he deserves sympathy. Not because he’s lost his power, but because he’s lost control of his life.

The demands on him just keep mounting. He is called upon to define the new frontiers of innovation.He also must notch big victories with his philanthropic foundation, now the world’s richest. Gates recently admitted, “I’m doing a lot more philanthropy than I expected to at a young age.” His early decisions seem uninspired: diseases in the developing world and university education for minority students. Worthy causes, but well-established (even moldy) ones, where Gates can’t lead; he can only hand out big checks like the billion
dollars he gave to the United Negro College Fund.

These gestures are meant to satisfy the public’s desire to see Gates act like a philanthropist-while still limiting the insistent claims on his time that would result from being a fulltime foundation chief. But they are likely only to heighten the pressures on him to serve as an all-purpose savior. On a smaller scale, all successful innovators face this pressure in a world obsessed with the power and promise of technology. Not only must the innovator find the proper role for themselves in a company, or even an industry, spawned by their efforts. They must also work to defy society’s image of them as the Newly Selfish.

Gates, of course, may somehow evade this trap. Like a cyber version of Picasso or Frank Sinatra, he may find ways to reinvent himself in his medium of choice. It is surely possible for even an icon to stay sharp. Look at Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and Gates’ childhood pal. Allen left Microsoft years ago and, while a super-billionaire himself, dodges the limelight. Perhaps for this reason he has shown a flair for quixotic projects: founding a museum for the late rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix; buying sports teams; peripatetic investing in the industries that spawn the digital age. His life lacks coherence, but it gives off brilliant sparks.

Allen reminds me of the time when I asked Gates if he would ever buy a jazz music label, a book publisher, a movie studio or in some other way indulge a private passion of his (this was six years ago, when I was regularly reporting on Microsoft). Gates looked at me blankly, then repeated his mantra that he would stay focused on software.

A sensible answer. But the wrong one if he wants to doff the handcuffs. Gates’ unwillingness to pursue the frivolous and unexpected stands as a warning to all proven innovators. Only by making fools of themselves can they escape the prison of success.

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