There is a post entitled “Bill Gates’ 11 Rules of Life” making its way around the Internet. The post states that Mr. Gates offered these “11 Rules” at a high school graduation some years ago, and proceeds to list the rules. Whether Mr. Gates created these rules or not (urbanlegends.about.com says not), the post has gained traction as worthy advice to young graduates from a successful American.
The “11 Rules of Life” basically state that we should accept that life is unfair and not expect things to be handed to us. Although appealing on some gut level, the rules are ultimately a kind of philosophy of the privileged that leads hard-working people to think and vote against their own self-interest. What young people need to learn today is not acceptance but critical thinking, especially about why life is unfair and what ordinary Americans are handed in life. To that end, I offer an alternative to the “Gates” rules, which I will call “11 Rules of Life for the Rest of Us.”
Gates Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it!
Rule 1 for the rest of us: Life is not fair – do something about it! Your voice in the political process is diluted at the polls and the information that you get is distorted by the media. Your elected leaders answer to donors and lobbyists, not to you. Investigate things for yourself and then go above, below, around or through your elected leaders in furtherance of your beliefs.
Gates Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
Rule 2 for the rest of us: Base your self-esteem on your right to create a world worth living in. You were born into a world owned and run by others, and you see the poverty, insecurity, greed, war and destruction they have wrought. Work to create a sustainable world where everyone has a place, so that you don’t have to accomplish something on the backs of others in order to have self-esteem.
Gates Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.
Rule 3 for the rest of us: You will NOT be a vice-president until you go to college and graduate school, paying for both with tens of thousands of dollars in loans that you will have to pay back, with interest, before you can comfortably buy the status symbols of success. Your parents could graduate from high school, find a job with a living wage and get on with their lives. You will begin life in debt and may never catch up or get ahead.
Gates Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
Rule 4 for the rest of us: If you think your teacher is an autocrat training you to obey your future boss, wait till you actually get a boss. Public schools educate their students in the interest of the common good so that everyone has the opportunity to be an informed citizen. But in the work world, ‘democracy’ ends at the office or factory door. Those who have the wealth get to make the decisions, and those who live on wages must submit to their rule. (As the comedian George Carlin pointed out, this inherent tension is the reason that public schools will never foster the kind of critical thinking that may lead to people changing the rules to benefit the common good and not private interests).
Gates Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping — they called it opportunity.
Rule 5 for the rest of us: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity, but it will leave you beneath the poverty line. Jobs ‘flipping burgers’ pay minimum wage, and minimum wage has never amounted to a living wage. “Based on a typical, 2,000-hour work year, the 1968 inflation-adjusted minimum wage would equate to an annual salary of $17,080 per year, versus $14,500 for today’s minimum wage.” (see: www.epi.org/publication/state_of_working_america_preview_the_declining_value_of_minimum_wage/). The idea that there is an inherent dignity in all kinds of work is real. The idea that flipping burgers represents an opportunity for anything except subsistence is not.
Gates Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
Rule 6 for the rest of us: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes. Instead, accept that they may lead to your financial ruin, unless you are a Wall Street banker, in which case the rest of us will bail you out and you won’t learn from them. Wall Street bankers made mistakes that wrecked their corporations and the economy in 2008. They whined to the government, which bailed them out on the backs of the American taxpayers. Not five years later, banks are bigger than ever, Wall Street bankers are richer than ever, and one of the banks just suffered a $3 billion plus loss making the same kind of ‘mistake.’ Meanwhile, if you make the ‘mistake’ of buying a home during the next real estate bubble, you will likely lose it, and your life savings, when it bursts. You will likely never recover from that one mistake, and unlike a Wall Street banker, you won’t have the money to get Congress to listen to you whine, let alone bail you out.
Gates Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Rule 7 for the rest of us: Before you were born, the world wasn’t on the brink of environmental disaster the way it is now. It got that way because those in power put an economic system in place that requires more and more profits and an ever-growing economy. They still talk about this unsustainable system in terms of jobs, economic growth, free enterprise and lots of other cool euphemisms. Your parents may not be parasites, but the rain forest needs saving from the parasitic system that is threatening it and all of us.
Gates Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
Rule 8 for the rest of us: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. The best indicator of whether you will be a winner or loser in life is your parents’ economic position. No matter how MANY TIMES you hear leaders talk about education and opportunity, the fact is that upward mobility is lower in America than in most developed countries. As a result, a child’s economic position is heavily influenced by the economic position of his parents. (See Wikipedia on Economic Mobility). There are winners and losers in American life, but the biggest factor determining which one you will be is completely beyond your power to change.
Gates Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.
Rule 9 for the rest of us: Life is not divided into semesters anywhere in the world. You don’t get summers off because employers are not interested in helping you. That is why governments provide vacation time to employees, at least in every other country worth mentioning. Even Chinese workers are guaranteed at least 5 days of vacation time. Iranian workers get a mandatory 4 weeks. Here in America, though, there is no statutorily required vacation time. None. In every other comparable country, you have a right to FIND YOURSELF. Only in America is it considered a privilege.
Gates Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Rule 10 for the rest of us: Television is NOT real life. On television people always have jobs or don’t seem to need them. In real life there are more people than jobs, so no matter what we do, millions of us will always be unemployed. Television is distraction, so of course there are no shows about the crushing economic and psychological effects of unemployment, or the perpetual anxiety most of us feel at the thought that we might lose our job at any moment.
Gates Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.
Rule 11 for the rest of us: Be nice to the nerds you know, but chances are you won’t end up working for one. It is a nice myth that Mr. Gates is just a nerd who became rich because he liked computers instead of football. But it is more determinative of his success that he is white, male, straight and of European descent, and that he comes from a wealthy family (his grandfather was a national bank president, his father was a prominent lawyer and his mother was a director of a financial holding company). He was also born at the exact right time and place to become who he is (See Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on this point). The nerds you know are not nearly as well heeled or as well placed, and they will probably end up working for Bill Gates or someone like him, just like you.