I stood where Bill Gates is standing right now.
I’m not sure why that matters, but knowing that I was previously in the same space as one of the most influential people in the world is downright unnerving. It is as if the universe has now made the comparison between us. Not a connection, but a comparison. Of all of the people that have existed in that space, he is the one that has done the most good for the world health crisis. He is the one who has funded the most schools. He is the one that has made the most money and changed the world with his computing vision.
Today, in the cafeteria of the Science Leadership Academy, Bill Gates took question from high school students that I have met and have had conversations with. He looked through the same windows that I have and walked through the same doors. Now, watching him do these things on a live video feed is nothing compared to the experience of actually being there with him. But, perhaps it is better this way. I don’t have to be embarrassed at my relative lack of accomplishment. I will never have to stand up to him and justify my own work against his.
And I know he doesn’t care, but I don’t need him to. I don’t look up to him as if he were a god among men and I don’t need his approval to make my own small contributions to society. I do, however, want to listen to him. I want to know his story, both of his successes and failures. I want to see that the cosmic comparison continues to weigh everything and come up with an answer at the end of it all, not in terms of who matters more but rather a comparison of two ideas. Because at the end of the day, there is an idea of Bill Gates and there is an idea of Ben Wilkoff. Our ideas intersect and separate at different points. They both have a narrative, an arch, and many plot devices. I don’t think that just sharing the same space is the only part of our “ideas” that cross paths either.
In telling his own story, he said that it you can have everything. He said that all of the world’s knowledge can be found in libraries and online. He said that the basis of getting what you want out of life was a good education. He said these things because they mesh with his story, with the idea of Bill Gates.
They also match my story. I have everything. Everything that I need for information, for connection, and for creation. I had a wonderful education, and I figured out just what it means to learn (although, mostly outside of a formalized setting). I read books and blogs and tweets. I see the world’s information and I incorporate it into the idea of me.
That is why we should listen to people. Whether they are Bill Gates or someone in the supermarket. That is why we have to constantly compare notes on what kinds of stories we are telling to one another. We need to be aware that whenever two people have shared the same space and time, there is a comparison that must be shared. When we see differences, we should recognize them. We should celebrate the fact that our stories aren’t the same. We should also look for those places that our ideas match up. When we find those places, we should feel connected to an understanding that we indeed are experiencing the same reality as one another. We should feel incredibly happy that neither of our ideas are entirely flawed because we have shared something special. When the ideas of ourselves resonate with one another, it doesn’t matter if one knows it and the other doesn’t. So long as someone is making note that there was a singularity of vision for a brief moment, that is enough. It is enough to know that Bill Gates and myself, for the moment that the story was being told and heard, are allowed to let our ideas meld.
I was in Target the other day with my two children and an elderly man stopped me after I paid for our groceries. He told me that he had four children and that for a few years he had to leave them alone with his wife while he was in the War. He said that his entire family had a food budget of $15 per week, and they were able to stretch it and make it work. I had just paid for $150 of groceries that may not even last us the week. That is a factor of 10. He said that the number almost made him fall out of his bench seat as he waited for his wife to get out of the bathroom. In that moment, he noticed that our stories were drastically different from one another. He was both making a note of that fact and allowing me to do the same.
At some point in the future, I may understand exactly what he was talking about. For right now, I can just be thankful for the story. At some point, I may be able to hold the same understanding as he did of leaving his children and wife behind to work toward a cause greater than himself, but for right now I can just listen. Perhaps, that is all that any of us can do.
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