Review: Inside Bill’s Brain

“Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates”, a documentary series on Netflix, is an inside view of the life and times of Bill Gates. The documentary series consists of three episodes. Each episode weaves together two parallel threads from Bill Gates’ life – one from the past and one in the present.

In the present timeline, Episode 1 explores a challenge that the Gates Foundation is working on in many developed countries, and one that is especially close to my heart, having worked in the field for many years now – sanitation. The design of cost-effective toilets and effective sewage treatment for the developing world to eliminate avoidable deaths of children due to sanitation-related diseases like diarrhoea – is a cause Bill is exceptionally passionate about. It is heartening to see the billionaire bring together young minds to work on such a complex but unglamorous problem. It is hopefully a matter of time before Bill and his young minds come up with a simple, cheap and scalable solution to this challenge that woefully and avoidably continues to plague the developing world.

In the past timeline of this episode, we learn more about Bill’s childhood as not just a prodigal genius, but also as a child who had a difficult relationship with his mother. Resistance to parental authority is one of the side-effects of childhood genius, as it turns out. Bill’s mother, however, refused to give in to Bill’s rebellious behaviour. Instead, she pushed him to explore areas uncomfortable to him, like developing his social skills which the quintessential bookworm sorely lacked. His mother’s life is a lived masterclass in parenting, which shows that even if one is blessed with Bill Fricking Gates for a child, there is still a critical role that a parent can play in honing the child’s overall growth and shaping his or her future. That his mother left an indelible mark on his life is clear, so much so that he clearly would not have been the great success that he is today without her influence, no matter his natural gifts. When asked about the worst day of his life, Bill swallows hard and says “the day my mother died”.

Episode 2, in the present timeline, deals with another big challenge the Gates Foundation has taken on, the eradication of polio. It is an exciting episode exploring how, even though many countries like India have now eradicated polio, a few nations like Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to have children’s lives irreversibly affected by this avoidable disease. Particularly interesting is the effect of unique causes explored in the episode – e.g. the lack of maps and local terrorism which has thwarted basic vaccination efforts. The high point of the documentary series for me was when the Director asks questions about Bill’s ability to distance himself emotionally from the children with polio that he encounters individually. Bill responds that in order to look at the larger picture and come up with a scalable solution to the problem, he needs to look beyond the individual child in front of him, no matter how moving their situation is. The Director says, “This is not very inspiring”, to which Bill’s response is, “Well, it is not my aim to be inspiring. My aim is optimisation (of limited resources for maximum impact).” Once again, I could relate even though I am myself seldom able to achieve this kind of distance from my own monkeysphere (Google it, or maybe Bing it this one time). How many of us would have the clarity of thought to articulate their priorities so succinctly, and rise above people’s expectations of us, especially at this level of fame? Hat tip to Bill for this.

From the past, Episode 2 explores the two most defining friendships of his life – at school and later in life. Both are friends he has now lost. The episode showcases the defining role friendships and partnerships can play in building up even the most celebrated individual successes in the world. If the richest man in the world could not have made it without the defining partnerships of his life, maybe we need to take a harder look at who we are spending most of our time with, too. Bill speaks with regret about letting precious time go by over trifle matters and for holding on to grudges too long. It truly inspires you to not to let that happen with the people that matter in your own life, and to not let one’s ego get in the way of relationships that truly matter. As Bill’s assistant puts it so aptly in one of the episodes, “Time is the one thing even Bill cannot buy.”

The third and final episode deals with the issue of climate change, particularly the challenge of finding renewable sources of energy to replace coal. On this, Bill has taken the controversial position of promoting nuclear power as the energy of the future that will save the planet. Even in the face of tough criticism of nuclear power, he remains confident that it is the safest and most scalable solution to the energy challenge. This is another work in progress and here, his efforts remain especially exposed to the mercy of fate. We see how the Fukushima blast and the following out of US-China relationships trade relationship adversely affected his best laid plans to promote nuclear power in the past due to sheer unfortunate timing. Yet again, it remains to be seen how and when Bill’s promotion of nuclear power will bounce back and if time will prove him and his team right about it’s earth-saving potential.

Notable here is another facet of Bill’s personality that the Director emphasizes – in all the years he has known Bill, he has never seen him respond to failure with “I give up”, only with “Let’s work harder”. Another telling quality for what it takes to be Bill Gates.

On the personal side, this episode explores the most critical partnership of Bill’s life – his wife, Melinda Gates. There is a rare relationship both share personally as well as professionally. It is inspiring how the two have an incredible mutual respect and a truly equal relationship, despite the obvious challenges that would come with one spouse being an infamous workaholic and a world famous entrepreneur, not to mention the richest man in the world. The equalness of their relationship is clearly a hallmark foundation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a world where most charitable organizations are set up by the man running the big bad business as a PR effort, if not just a passtime for the wife at home, it is amazing to see how Bill and Melinda bring their truly complementary takes to their Foundation, each enriching it with their unique perspective. Their mutual respect for the other’s starkly different perspective is another quality that every partnership and marriage can learn from.

The raw strength of their relationship is best encapsulated in the moment when the Director asks Bill what he would regret not doing the most if he died this instant. For the first time in the documentary, which revisits several low points in his life both professionally as well as personally, Bill visibly wells up and says, “Thanking Melinda.”

The documentary leaves you humbled by Bill’s Brain, which stars in the titular role, and how it absorbs and processes massive quantities of information (he reads about a dozen books a week!) More importantly, how it continues to be driven by the purpose of improving our lot as a species. We are very lucky indeed to have this brain on the side of humanity (not to mention having that bank balance on the side of that brain!) Bill’s endless curiosity well into his sixties, his innate humanness, the fact that he is not an infallible giant but a flawed mortal like the rest of us – are all inspiring messages of hope that one can take away from watching this series. Early on in the documentary Bill says his greatest fear is that his brain stop working. Let’s hope, for the sake of all of us, that that day is far far away. It gives one hope for humanity when you think not only of Bill’s continuing direct contributions to humnkind, but the thousands of young minds that are shaped by the humility, curiosity and sense of purpose of Bill’s Brain.

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