As at the end of every life, especially those lived in public, there’s an attempt to make sense of the accomplishments and assign a legacy. The last few days have seen many tributes to Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who died on October 15 at the age of 65 from complications from cancer.
The problem with Allen, however, is the problem with polymaths: No one thing alone defines who they are. The cryptographer you know may be the sculptor to your friend. Or, the electric car entrepreneur may also be the space explorer. Which one is it and who’s to say? The polymath cares least of all, motivated more by the pursuit of ideas and interests than by how they are perceived.
Known first for creating the world’s most important software company with Bill Gates, Allen left Microsoft in 1983 following clashes with Gates and recovery from cancer treatments. He became a billionaire overnight when Microsoft went public in 1986. The next decade saw him attempt to forge a tech legacy of his own, but a combination of ideas ahead of their time and poor management kept that from happening. Even so, Allen remained in the spotlight due to the wealth that kept him on the Forbes Richest People list and because of his affiliation with Microsoft, which was dominating the tech world.
Since his time at Microsoft, Allen has come to be seen in other ways as well: A great philanthropist who poured hundreds of millions of dollars into important causes such as brain science, cancer research and disease remediation. He often lent out his megayacht, Octopus, for research and recovery operations. He was equally a space geek, who funded the development of an Ansari X-Prize-winning rocketship, as well as a dual-bodied aircraft carrier that would go to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere. He had a high profile among sports fans for his ownership of the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks. He transformed Seattle, his hometown, funding developments that made the city more livable and attractive. Unprompted in an interview this year, music legend Quincy Jones said Allen could sing and play guitar just like Jimi Hendrix. He held 43 patents under his name.
So who was Paul Allen? As Allen’s many endeavors have been pushed simultaneously into the spotlight since his passing, headlines have attempted to synthesize his life’s work in some tidy fashion: “Paul Allen remembered for sports, tech, giving” and “From Microsoft to the space race” and “After Paul Allen Co-Founded Microsoft, He Changed Brain Science Forever.” There is little agreement on where to place his impact and defining moments.
I know firsthand the challenge of slapping a label on Allen. When writing his biography in 2003, I faced the task of finding a center to his story because he was both a polymath and a man, till his death, ever in search of a clear post-Microsoft identity. But now, in this reflective moment, it seems worth asking: Can you achieve great fame and success as a polymath?
Unlike many iconoclasts worthy of biographical study, Allen is not synonymous with a single company or invention or idea or moment in history. The Microsoft creation myth is an oldie and a goodie, but it doesn’t tell the full story of Allen. He was not simply—not only—the co-founder of Microsoft.
Which is a big contrast to how we think about who gets to be famous.
It doesn’t matter how much one does in his or her life, there seems to be a collective cognitive inability to process more than one major achievement from a person. So we have Bill Gates who is famous for building Microsoft; Henry Ford who built the Model T; Mark Zuckerberg who brought us Facebook.
But all of these people—all of us—do so much more.
These are nice, simple narratives that give us a shorthand for the way we speak of these leaders and innovators. Never mind that Henry Ford’s greater impact was the assembly line nor that Gates may solve one or more of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises. (Zuckerberg is still in his early days so we will have to watch and see. But he’s already set up his own philanthropic company with the humble goal of curing all diseases in his daughter’s lifetime.)
History is dotted with examples of famous individuals who were also polymaths: Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among them, have brought many advantages and advances to their societies. Yet we often miss their accomplishments—many of which enrich our lives every day—with an overemphasis on a singular genius. As with a restricted multiple-choice menu, history too often picks just one of their many achievements and slaps that label on them. Maybe we’re not comfortable with the idea of a person being so well versed in so many things. Being good at one thing is a challenge enough for most of us.
It’s hard to pin down a polymath. While researching Allen for my book, I asked my sources—his friends and colleagues, past and then-present—what motivated him and how they defined him. Some of them talked of him in contrast to Gates, as if they existed only in relation to each other, and to a single narrative of the other. Allen was “more easygoing” and “more laid back” than Gates. As I wrote then of those conversations, “Even those who have known Allen for years still have trouble defining him, because he is always looking into new areas and finding new things that appeal to him.” Or, in his own words, “Even as a kid, every year I was interested in something different,” he told Fortune in 1994.
At the time of publication, we called him the “Accidental Zillionaire,” borrowing from a Wired story by the same name. Allen was then still perceived as more of a tech figure. He had launched a few companies with grand ambitions that had failed, all the while profiting from a company he no longer had anything to do with. Pouring many of his millions into these flawed conceptions just ended up making him look like Microsoft had been some dumb luck.
Microsoft, of course, had not been Allen’s dumb luck, any more than it was Gates’s. It was Allen who convinced Gates to work with him on a programming language in 1975 that ultimately led to the formation of Microsoft. Gates had the chutzpah to make big promises, to their first customer, Altair, and then more famously to IBM, of software that didn’t exist; Allen saved the day each time by producing that world-changing software. If it weren’t for Allen, there would be no Microsoft, period. And if it weren’t for Gates, there would be no Microsoft mega-success as you know it.
Allen’s legacy may be that there is no singular genius and that we should embrace the multi-interested among us, the renaissance man, the team player. There are signs that we may be heading in this direction. The gig economy doesn’t lend itself to a single legacy when you’re driving your Uber car to your Airbnb home to design graphics for a job you got through UpWork. Of course, working a gig is not the same as simultaneously curing cancer and improving the game of football. But it’s on the right track. Individuals and their contributions to society are multifaceted, never truly suited to a headline or blurb.
In the end, Allen may have had it right with the title of his book, “Idea Man,” bland and tepid though it may be. He himself perhaps understood best that there was no single invention, company or pursuit that would ever come to best represent him and his life, but a series of them that he would continue to generate. Or at least, standing in the long shadow of Bill Gates, it may be as he hoped.
Laura Rich is the author of the Paul Allen biography, “The Accidental Zillionaire” and founder of Exit Club, a group for entrepreneurs who leave their businesses.