Let's talk about Bill Gates and the concept of legacy. It's the death of Gates's father, Bill Gates Sr., this week that brings it to mind.

The most incredible thing about Gates, and the thing that people will remember long after he's gone, is that he not only started an amazing company and helped build an industry, but that he also has had an equally incredible second act.

It's very rare. How often does someone reach the pinnacle of one field (in his case, entrepreneurship and tech) only to step aside and then reach the absolute pinnacle of a completely different field (charity and philanthropy)?

I've written before that Gates has at least three people to thank for helping set him on this path:

  • his wife Melinda Gates,
  • his friend and mentor Warren Buffett, and
  • his mother, the late Mary Maxwell Gates, who badgered him into meeting Buffett to begin with.

Now, I realize I've been remiss in neglecting also to give credit to Bill Gates Sr., who died at age 94 this week, and who had served as a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"As I got older," the younger Gates wrote in a stirring tribute to his father, "I came to appreciate my dad's quiet influence on almost everything I have done in life." 

It wasn't just how he modeled drive and worth ethic, Gates added; it was specifically also the elder Gates's approach to philanthropy:

More than anyone else, he shaped the values of the foundation. He was collaborative, judicious, and serious about learning.

He was dignified but hated anything that seemed pretentious. (Dad's given name was William H. Gates II, but he never used the "II"--he thought it sounded stuffy.) 

He was great at stepping back and seeing the big picture. He was quick to tear up when he saw people suffering in the world. And he would not let any of us forget the people behind the strategies we were discussing.

Gates Sr. was a highly successful lawyer in Seattle while Gates was growing up, before helping to form and take charge of his son's philanthropy. (So, I suppose it's fair to say Gates Sr. had a second act, too.)

Gates Jr. shared also that when he turned 50, his father wrote to him and cautioned against overusing the word "incredible," which he said had "huge meaning to be used only in extraordinary settings."

(The elder Gates wrote at the time that the experience of being father to Bill and his sisters was worthy of being called "incredible," and the younger Gates now used it in his essay this week to describe the experience of being his father's son.)

That leads me to a post-script--something that, I realized while writing this, I happen to know about personally. Because, it's funny; having written a lot about Gates over the years, it's only now that I've reflected on the fact that our names have something in common.

We're both "Bill-short-for-William," of course, but there are a lot of Williams out there. More unusually, it's that we were both named after our fathers, who were in turn named after their fathers.

That can be a complicating factor in any father-son relationship. I don't have a son, but I don't know if I would have continued the naming tradition if I did--even though I'd say I have a good relationship with my dad.

But the naming convention is also the kind of thing that gets you thinking about legacy from an early age. It's a reminder, every time you think of your name, that you're the progeny of someone else, and likely the progenitor (literal or figurative) of others in the future. 

Seriously, you start thinking about things like that long before you know the definition of words like "progeny" and "progenitor."

But done correctly--as I think Gates Sr. helped Gates Jr. to do here--it can be a truly incredible and positive thing. And I think that's an additional, enduring kind of legacy that Gates and his father now share.