Charles Pfeffer

Executive Coaching & Leadership Consulting

Paying Attention to What’s Important

A few weeks ago, there was a cover story in Fortune magazine about Melinda Gates, the philanthropist and wife of Microsoft Chairman, Bill Gates. The profile included a story about how Melinda wound up attending Duke University instead of Notre Dame, a school that she had aspired to from an early age. Here is what the article said about her selection experience.

She made valedictorian and got into Notre Dame. But Notre Dame did not get her. When she and her dad visited, she recalls, officials at the university told them that “computers are a fad” and that they were shrinking the computer science department. “I was crushed,” Melinda says. Duke, which was expanding in computer science, got her instead. She earned her BA and MBA in five years. Then a helpful recruiter from IBM, where Melinda had worked as a summer intern, directed her to Microsoft. “I told the recruiter that I had one more interview – at this young company, Microsoft,” she recalls. “She said to me, ‘If you get a job offer from them, take it, because the chance for advancement there is terrific.’”

In reading this short paragraph, I came away with some big questions. First, I wonder how the people in charge at Notre Dame today feel about the fact that they had the chance to have Melinda Gates as an alumna. Second, I wonder where the person who said “computers are a fad” is today. Third, I wonder what future billionaire philanthropists are being turned off by an arrogant comment this season of college visitations.

A lesson I take away from this little slice of life story is that we never know who we are engaging with. We cannot know their future. This may be the moment of truth for them, the moment in which they make a choice that significantly changes the trajectory of their life and fortunes. The talented young people of today are the world leaders of tomorrow. Today they may look naive, ignorant, impressionable and goofy. Twenty-five years later, they could be buying the naming rights for your local stadium or giving millions to cure a disease that’s effected your family. We just don’t know.

If I were the person who had said “computers are a fad” to the future Mrs. Gates, I think I’d have some regret about it now, at least on behalf of Notre Dame. I’m going to take this lesson to heart as I interact with the talented young people I meet and pay attention to what interests them as well as what I think I know about the future. Who knows? Maybe I’ll learn something and maybe I’ll help influence a genius to make a valuable choice for herself.

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