Bill Gates's Desert Island playlist

  • 31 January 2016
  • From the section Magazine
Bill Gates during maths studies

Microsoft founder Bill Gates talks in detail about his life to the BBC's Kirsty Young on this week's Desert Island Discs, on Radio 4 - from his schooldays (pictured above) to his latest work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to "get rid of" diseases that kill young children.

Each castaway interviewed in the programme is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item to take with them to a desert island.

Gates's choices are listed at the bottom of the page, after some highlights from the interview.

Disruptive child

At the age of 12, Gates explains, his parents sent him to see a psychologist.

"I was a bit disruptive. I started, early on, sort of questioning - were their rules logical, and always to be followed? So there was a tiny bit of tension there, as I was kind of pushing back. The [psychologist] they sent me to was very nice, and got me reading a lot about psychology and Freud and stuff like that. He convinced me that it was kind of an unfair thing that I would challenge my parents and I really wasn't proving anything. So by the time I was 14 I got over that, which is good because then they were very supportive as I started to really engage in writing software and learning different computer things."


Paul Allen, who would later become a co-founder of Microsoft, was a couple of years above Gates at school. Together they fixed the school scheduling software to ensure Gates was the only boy in classes of girls.

"Paul did the computer scheduling with me. Unfortunately for him he was two years ahead of me and he was off to college by then. So I was the one who benefited by being able to have the nice girls at least sit near me. It wasn't that I could talk to them or anything - but they were there. I think I was particularly inept at talking to girls, or thinking, 'OK - do you ask them out, do you not?' When I went off to Harvard I was a little bit more sociable. But I was below average on talking to girls."

Image copyright Alamy


Gates dropped out of Harvard aged 19 to start Microsoft with Allen.

"Paul and I had done enough programming things - including our high-school scheduling - that we saved some money. So we just funded [the company] ourselves and had enough to hire a few people. We got to make a lot of mistakes because it was all new. How do you go do business in Japan? I'm hiring people who are older than me, and I can't even rent a car because I'm not 21 years old. So it was really frantic."

At one point, Gates confesses, he lost his licence for speeding.

"I'm well over that. But back then my first car was a Porsche 911. One of my few indulgences was that, at night, to think about our strategy, I'd go out and drive my Porsche up in the hills."


"I worked weekends, I didn't really believe in vacations," Gates says of his early years at the helm of Microsoft.

"I had to be a little careful not to try and apply my standards to how hard [others at the company] worked. I knew everybody's licence plate so I could look out the parking lot and see, you know, when people come in. Eventually I had to loosen up as the company got to a reasonable size."

Find out more

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Listen to Desert Island Discs, presented by Kirsty Young, on the BBC iPlayer


Kirsty Young asks Gates if he was ruthless in business.

"No, only if you define having super-low prices as ruthless. It's hard to compete with somebody who's betting on the volume and saying, 'Hey, we're going to have... these super-low prices.' That's very intimidating and in that sense, yes we were aggressive."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "I am a little more intense than other people," says Gates. "I'm no more intense than Steve Jobs was, I'll say that."

Steve Jobs

"Steve really is a singular person in the history of personal computing in terms of what he built at Apple. For some periods, we were completely allies working together - I wrote software for the original Apple II. Sometimes he would be very tough on you, sometimes he'd be very encouraging. He got really great work out of people.

"In the early years, the intensity had always been about the project, and so then [when] Steve got sick, it was far more mellow in terms of talking about our lives and our kids. Steve was an incredible genius, and I was more of an engineer than he was. But anyway, it was fun. It was more of a friendship that was reflective, although tragically then he couldn't overcome the cancer and died."

Marrying Melinda

Gates describes the first time he met the woman who would go on to become his wife.

"There was a Microsoft meeting in New York and I was the second to last one to come, and I sat down, and she was the last one to come. She sat down next to me and I asked her if she wanted to go out dancing that night, and she had some other people she was going off with. So then a few weeks later I saw her in the parking lot and I said, 'Hey could you go out in a couple weeks?' and she said, well that wasn't spontaneous enough for her."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bill Gates with his wife Melinda during a press conference in Seattle in 1999

Neither of them thought at first their relationship would become serious.

"I was still being fanatical... I was willing in my twenties and most of my thirties to say the job was the centre of my life. Therefore I wasn't going to get married or have kids. But I knew that eventually I wanted to, and she arrived at kind of the perfect time, and we fell in love. I had to think about it a little bit, but I said, 'Yeah I want to change my priorities.' And you know now we actually take quite a few vacations. I'm sure myself in my twenties would look at my schedule now and find it very wimpy indeed."

Giving back

Both Gates's parents were involved in charities, including the birth-control organisation Planned Parenthood.

"It still is controversial in parts of America, that's right. But my parents were both big believers in it. My dad was the head of that. So they set a very good example of being engaged in giving back."

Gates says that for him and his wife the big thing is getting rid of the diseases that kill children under five, and spending their money in the "most impactful way".

"I mean, you're not going to spend it on yourself. And we think only a small portion should go to our kids, so that they can have their own careers and make their own way. And so that leaves most of it for Melinda and I to work on how should it be spent for the most needy in the world," he says. "After a trip to Africa, we really started learning about disease... We were stunned to realise that for each $1,000 we gave, if we did it the right way, we could save a life."

The Bill Gates desert island playlist

Image copyright Getty Images
  1. David Bowie and Queen - Under Pressure: "In my 20s and 30s, I worked a lot. But a few Fridays and Saturdays we'd go out and dance so this kind of reminds me of those disco days."
  2. Willie Nelson - Blue Skies: "My wife Melinda and I love Willie Nelson. So as a surprise gift for her, I had him show up the night before we got married. We were on a beach in Hawaii and he kind of walked down the beach with his guitar and I said, 'Well here he is, let's have this guy sing some songs for us.'"
  3. Ed Sheeran - Sing: "My kids, who are 19, 16, and 13, refresh my musical taste by tuning the radio or calling up songs on their phones. And so this is one that my 13-year-old, Phoebe, happens to like."
  4. Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced: "Because I was younger [Paul Allen] would sometimes taunt me with the title of this song - Are You Experienced - because I hadn't gotten drunk or other various things, so this is one of our favourites."
  5. U2 - One: "Paul told me that I should meet Bono, and I didn't prioritise it. We finally did get to meet and I was amazed how he had thought about [global health] read about it, and so started a partnership. He has been absolutely amazing."
  6. The Beatles - Two of Us: "Steve [Jobs] was really into music and he loved the Beatles and so did I. And he actually mentioned the song, Two of Us, saying that was kind of like this journey we'd been on where we'd been competing and working together."
  7. How Can Love Survive, from the Sound of Music: "Melinda and I both love the Sound of Music and as I met [investor and philanthropist] Warren Buffett, he and his first wife Susie sang a song from The Sound of Music. In fact this is one we'd never heard because it was in the Broadway musical and not in the movie. It's kind of a cute song so Melinda and I think of this as one of our favourites."
  8. My Shot from Hamilton, the musical: "It's about a young person saying, 'Hey I'm going to take a risk - I'm going to get out there and try and do something new and different.'"

Book and luxury item

  • Every Desert Island Discs castaway traditionally gets the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. For his extra book Bill Gates chooses The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker.
  • Asked for his luxury item, he says: "Well I suppose asking for an internet connection is probably outside the rules." Instead he requests "a whole bunch of DVDs of all the world's great lectures".

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