Jan 30, 2010 | Davos, Switzerland
Jan 30, 2010

Whenever I think about Bill Gates, which is really not that often, it is usually in the context of Steve Jobs, who can often make Bill Gates seem like a dull and boring geek.

But today I spent the morning with Bill Gates, listening to him talk about his foundation, and I thought he was incredible, full of measured wisdom and worldly grit, accumulated slowly from lots of time in far-flung tough and tortured corners of the world where "you can touch your music" is something said about djimbe drums and not about iPhones. This morning made Steve Jobs, by comparison, look like a used car salesman, albeit a brilliant one.

Bill Gates had on a collared shirt beneath a navy cashmere sweater, gray slacks, and black loafers. I think this is probably what he wears every day, and the understated i'm-the-richest-man-in-the-world-but-you'd-never-know-it aesthetic suited him well.

He was fielding each of our questions like an oracle. He'd sit in the chair with his knees touching and his feet side-by-side, like an obedient student, looking each inquisitor right in the eye. When each question was finished, he'd press himself up in the chair, cross his right leg over his left, look to the ceiling, open his palms and say, "Well..." Then he'd give the most balanced, direct, and succinct answer you could imagine.

His wife Melinda was in the front row, and she was equally impressive, and very lovely, too. As a couple, they possessed the easy humble confidence you can only learn from living a lot, and from knowing that even though you are the king and queen of the world, there is a lot of pain in your kingdom and you owe it to your subjects to fix it. Every empathetic king and queen will have a sadness, and that was there in them, too.

In the audience, hands were up and there were many questions. Among the "Young Global Leaders" everyone has their own particular cause, and while most of us are polite enough not to press it too often, others insist on always asking the same question about the same issue, badgering home the same point again and again, no matter who the speaker happens to be. These questions are not so much questions as lectures, and if the questions come at all, it is only after lengthy didactic diatribes, and everyone finds this annoying.

One of the women asked her usual question and we all groaned quietly. It was about a broad issue and full of doom and gloom.

Bill did his usual seat-shifting operation, and then said, "You are telling me all this, and I think, 'Yikes', 'Eeew', this seems really bad. But when people hear about something that seems really bad, they don't want to enter into it because then they will feel really bad, and people don't want to feel really bad. If there is a problem, you've got to tell it in terms of success stories. Broad issues are not helpful. You need to describe a specific case and focus on positive solutions."

In the afternoon John Maeda convened Paola, Adam, Matt, and me to conspire about art and design over cheese fondue at Schneider's Café. We plotted ways to get these topics onto the national agenda and into the minds of ordinary people, who are otherwise barraged by business, politics, entertainment, and commerce.

Paola is MoMA's design curator, and she's not a fan of the (Chelsea) art world, which she sees as shamelessly commercial and more about money than ideas. She's worked hard to increase the stature of design over the past few years, and is reluctant to let art redeem its increasingly bad reputation by hitching a ride with design. John is president of RISD, so he's charged with supporting art and design, and is interested in how they can work together. Adam has been indoctrinated by Paola, and is pretty skeptical of art, as many scientists seem to be. Matt helps run Etsy, so he doesn't see much difference between art, design, and craft, all of which are words that Etsy sellers use to describe what they do.

I think there is a difference between art and design (having done both), though they are related. I said how good art is something that speaks to the soul, and good design to the mind. Design is a tool that can be used to make art, but can also be used to make products, logos, furniture, buildings, and other things. It's about intention.

I was saying how being an artist is about living with extreme sensitivity. This allows you to be a student of your own experience. This allows you to understand what nobody else can. This gives you something to teach. Then your work is how you teach. At that point craft and design can become important, but really only then.

John was saying how we need to convince the business world that art and design can be helpful to their bottom line through some kind of creative consulting. I was saying how throughout history, societies are remembered for the art and science they produce, and not for their business and politics, which are matters of the moment and quickly get forgotten (except for moguls and tyrants, who are remembered for different reasons). Any great society should recognize its best art and science, for they will be its legacy.

"People always say that technology is dehumanizing the world, but me, I think it's the opposite," said Paola, and John exclaimed, "Really! Interesting..."

We had our fondue and we hatched some ideas and they tried to brainstorm ways I could make some money from the work I produce, and many of the ideas were crazy and we laughed a lot and finished all the fondue, which was very good.

It was then the final night of Davos, and South Africa was putting on a cultural soirée, which was a lot of fun and very well produced, and so said Klaus Schwab with his South Africa scarf when he stood up to say a few words, holding the microphone in one bent arm while keeping the other one straight by his side as he normally does.

There were body-painted bushmen emerging from the shadows and creeping through the tuxedo forest, finally climbing up onto the stage.

A good DJ kept us dancing very late, and there were politicians and princes twisting through the fog to the music which was teasing then thumping then blasting then loud.

"I don't think one lifetime is enough to really know a person," shouted a pretty Ukrainian girl who works for the Forum, over the noise of the night. "It is so sad, how much there is to know and how you never can. So you have to use every moment, and you have to merge your souls. And it is very beautiful."

She's been passionately married for eight years, and I asked her how she knew it was him. She said you never really just know, but at some point you decide, and then it is your total faith and constant dedication over time that makes it into something that can never be broken or busted.

Her friend disagreed, and said how there is a time when you know, and how you have to wait for that time to come, because eventually it will. But her friend was speaking from speculation and not from experience because she was still single, so I thought that maybe it was better to look to the DJ and listen for clues in the music.