Much has been said about Bill Gates, as one may suspect. Perhaps the best evidence of the wisdom of Gates is the hugely popular, widely cited, “reality check” he (supposedly) gave to a high school graduation audience well over a decade ago. The have become to be known as Bill Gates’ 11 Rules of Life.

But there is a big dispute about whether in fact he did give a speech or whether they were his ideas.  Some suggest they were derived from a book by Charles Sykes and that some of the more interesting points were left out

It’s difficult to verify exactly what was said because of the Chinese-whispers nature of the web. And yet the points he (supposedly) made were direct, simple, and true. They are clearly not politically correct and against all the self-esteem movement ideas of ‘blame-others’ and ‘all must have prizes’.

It looks like a good dose of realistic, work-ethic, therapy. He tells secondary school children not to blame their teachers or parents for failure. Take responsibility: you and you alone are captain of your ship and master of your fate. Life is not fair: the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. There are winners and losers in life. Working hard with the right attitude increases your chance of being a winner. Particularly the attitude-thing: this is pitching up and pitching in.....and not phoning in sick when you just feel  tired after a ‘night on the tiles’.

There were other important ideas. Self-esteem building or therapy do not lead to success. Effort does. Success through effort and ability lead to people feeling justifiable proud. Not the other way around where boasting your (limited) talent leads to success.

Learn to work and work hard: start at the bottom and work your way up just like your parents and grandparents. Fast tracking is rare and becoming rarer. The long journey to the top teaches great lessons and skills.

School is, in many ways, a bad model for life. There are no long holidays or gap years in the adult world. There are no textbooks, TV/videogames and the rest to distort reality. Be grateful to your parents. And don’t despise nerds (perhaps a self-reference) because they are likely to become your employers. Technical people have a lot to offer.

This is music to the ears of many middle-aged teachers and parents worn down by what they see as the entitlement narcissism of young people over-fed with ‘I am special’ philosophy.

Using Gates’ brilliant model, what would you say at an MBA graduation ceremony? How different is the 28 year old from the 19 year old? Sure they are probably smarter, definitely poorer (very temporarily), clearer more tired than the school kids. But have they too been fed on a series of myths by business schools that are in ever greater competition with each other.?

Business Schools tell you that to become a very well paid high-flyer; one of the fast-streamed, talented group to be catapulted to success you need this piece of paper called an MBA It costs a lot in terms of time and money. But it is a very good investment? It is a guarantee of really high returns. It’s going to be a pretty miserable and stressful year or two. Perhaps a year out of your life. But you will make new friends, network with new and important people and have many windows of opportunity opened. You will be among the chosen, the elite, the super-rich.

So what to tell these graduates in the Bill Gates spirit of reality check. Here are mine:

Rule 1: Nobody will really care whether you got your MBA from the Ivy-League University or Fly-over-State College. They don’t know or care much about all that ranking and rating stuff. It may get you to the interview but that is all. It is about what you can do, will do and want to do…not a piece of paper which says you completed some assignment.

Rule 2: Neither will they care if you were awarded a distinction, were on the Dean’s list, or won a prize for the best essay in Entrepreneurial Psychology.

Rule 3: Your attitude to work is more important than qualifications and these very qualifications may have distorted your values making you often (paradoxically) less attractive.

Rule 4: Business Schools and Universities are mostly state sector places that do not model good business practice. Many academics have never run or business or worked in the private sector. Life experience may be a better qualification than scholarly pursuits.

Rule 5: Ambition is nothing without hard work and talent. Conscientiousness, prudence and diligence trump self-confidence and PR.

Rule 6: The exclusivity of having an MBA reduces every year. It is less and less of a competitive advantage. What employers want is proof of your ability to deliver.

Rule 7: The ‘hard’ courses (finance) are equally as important as the ‘easy’ courses (ethics, OB). Being a brilliant “quant jock” will not be enough to ensure promotion to management levels.

 Rule 8: Leadership and management can’t easily be taught in classrooms. Like riding a bicycle, flying a helicopter, playing the violin, practice is more important than theory. You can’t learn to lead from power-point, or reading popular books.

Rule 9: The banker-bonus world is finished. You will not be on 6k multiplied by your age and have a Lear Jet at 40. Get real. Anyway that is a misguided goal. All really successful people set out to be really good at what they did. Money was a way of measuring success not a goal in itseld

 Rule 10: Pay the price or suffer a cost. Who paid the greatest cost during your MBA year – partner, parents, children? Time to pay them back. Remember that apparently no one on their death bed say they wished they had worked harder, made more money or got a fancy degree. But they did say they wished they had spent more quality time with family and friends

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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