Paul Allen’s Book: Rich Guy Spats, Early Days with Gates, and Being OK as a Generalist

Vanity Fair got the first-excerpt scoop on Microsoft co-founder and Vulcan head honcho Paul Allen’s new book, “Idea Man,” and one element in particular is drawing most of the attention today: Allen’s depiction of a past rift with longtime friend and co-founder Bill Gates over Allen’s holdings in the company.

The Wall Street Journal has a nice follow-up story, based partly on a glimpse at the book provided to two of its reporters, that delves into the reaction among inner-circle Microsofties to that and some of the other Allen recollections.

The semi-sensational, rich-guy fight is doing its job in generating public relations buzz around Allen’s new book—after all, he’s setting off on a worldwide promotional tour. And I guess it makes perfect sense to choose a very Gates-centric portion for the first leak, because to the wider world, Paul Allen is often That Other Guy from Microsoft, who hasn’t worked at the company in a long time.

I do agree with other commentators that the vibe you get from reading today’s excerpted recollections is Allen seeing himself as a bit of a thinker and big-brother type to Gates’ hard-charging, brilliant entrepreneur: “Each time I brought an idea to Bill, he would pop my balloon … And he was right. My ideas were ahead of their time or beyond our scope or both.” But there’s also a bit of humility woven in there that I didn’t expect.

Allen clearly is still in awe of Gates’ mental prowess from their school days, even while he’s amused by the social oddities that Gates’ focus could produce.

I was particularly struck by Allen confronting his own intellectual limits at Washington State University, not exactly an Ivy League school, upon being totally perplexed by a blackboard full of equations: “It was one of those moments when you realize, I just can’t see it. I felt a little sad, but I accepted my limitations. I was O.K. with being a generalist.” I guess it’s worked out for him so far.

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