Earlier this year, Fortune magazine published a long — and I thought — remarkable profile of Melinda Gates.
    There is a bit of jockeying for the world’s richest person position, but her husband, Bill, is always in the Top Five, which is to say, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did, that “the rich are not like you and me.” If Fortune is right though, Melinda Gates has her own feet anchored firmly on the ground.
    Bill Gates’ story is well-known. He grew up an all-American nerd in a privileged family in Seattle, became Harvard’s most famous dropout, founded Microsoft and the rest is history. Melinda French grew up in Dallas, one of four children of a hardworking engineer father and a stay-at-home mother. At her all-girls Catholic high school, she realized that getting ahead meant being tops in her class. She emerged as a valedictorian fascinated by computers and earned both a B.A. and an M.B.A. in five years at Duke University.
    {mosimage}Melinda French, 22, and still into computers, went to work at a fledgling young company, Microsoft, where she met and eventually married the driven and still nerdy CEO. She moved, albeit reluctantly, into his gigantic techno-mansion where they are raising their three children under as “normal” circumstances as possible.
    And in the strangest twist of fate life has tossed Melinda French Gates’ way — she now presides alongside her husband over the world’s largest philanthropic foundation with assets of more than $37 billion. Together, the Gates plan to give away 95 percent of their wealth during their lifetimes.
    All this from a Texas girl who nearly two decades ago as a high school student set one goal for herself — one goal each and every day.
    Gates seemed to pooh-pooh her goal-setting, telling Fortune her targets were modest, “The goals were run a mile, learn a new word, that sort of thing.”
    I am fascinated by the concept.
    Many of us do this every day without really thinking about it. We tell ourselves, “Today I will be at work on time, go to the grocery store, make sure the children do all their homework.” These too are goals, and we may feel disappointed in ourselves if we do not achieve them, however mundane they may be.
    But to set a daily goal for conscious self-improvement is another thing altogether. It is promising oneself that whatever we may accomplish today — do our jobs, run our households, raise our children — we will also do one thing to make ourselves better in our own eyes. Melinda French’s seemingly modest goals as a high school girl — run a mile and learn a new word — surely helped mold her into the woman whose focus and determination are exerting profound and positive effects on the world’s most basic and most troubling issues, including education and Third World human health.
What seems most remarkable to me is that this clearly smart and thoughtful woman is partnering with her husband to devote most of their time and talents to helping people far less fortunate than they all over the world. What apparently began as a self-driven, self-imposed self-improvement plan has exploded into a global improvement plan.
    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has tackled such intransigent world health issues as malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis in the globe’s poorest countries. They offer small or “micro” loans and insurance to people who could never start a business or operate a farm without them. They fund green projects in places where subsistence is far more important than conservation. They invest in the issues that dog our nation’s public schools. Their funding handiwork can be seen in our own community at the Fuller Performance Learning Center. Here, students who have dropped out of high school for whatever reason are back in school online, fulfilling their course requirements and earning their high school diplomas.
Melinda Gates told Fortune that her youthful goal-setting was modest, but her mind was clearly already on a much larger picture. In her valedictory address, she told her fellow graduates this: “If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped.”
    None of us can do what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing around the world, and doing so well; in fact, mega-investor Warren Buffett is giving the foundation controlled by the Gates the bulk of his fortune for philanthropic purposes as well. What we can do though, is be mindful of what we want to accomplish in our lives for ourselves and for others. A life lived without thought and direction cannot possibly have as much meaning as one lived with goals and with generosity of both money and spirit.
The lesson of Melinda French Gates is to set goals, however modest or private, and to go for them.
    One a day.


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