It is said that great people often have weaknesses that rival their strengths.
I would say that is especially true in the case of Bill Gates.
As I watched “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” a three-part series about Gates on Netflix, I must confess at least two biases:
- I am a capitalist/free enterprise person when it comes to economics.
- I am also predisposed to admire philanthropy, especially when it comes to the Gates Foundation, which is the largest in the world.
A quick word about the series. Three especially noteworthy things make it worth viewing.
First, this series “humanizes” Gates, especially when it comes to his relationship with his wife and his mother. Certainly, you see the tyrannical boss and ruthless businessman, but you also see the more human side.
Second, it is fascinating to watch how a brilliant brain works. Gate’s brain is like a supercomputer on Red Bull – all of that with an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Third, a subtle subtext is the role that luck plays in success. Gates explains that best when he speaks of playing cards.
It was luck (good fortune? serendipity?) that placed him in a high school with brilliant people like Paul Allen.
They worked on computers together and happened to be incredibly close to a supercomputer in Seattle. Geography and timing allowed them to be on the first wave of the computer era.
Another serendipitous moment occurs when his mother suggests (insists?) that he meet with Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha.”
That meeting led to a lifelong friendship and billions of dollars eventually invested in his foundation.
When watching the series, it is hard to imagine someone any more driven to build a company than Gates.
They used to joke that working at Microsoft was a part-time job – you could choose any 12-hour shift you liked, day or night.
He would walk through the parking lot and memorize license plates, constantly checking to see who was at work and who was not.
Gates would berate people openly in meetings for ideas that did not meet his standard, saying things like, “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
As I watched, I could only think to myself, “I could not work for him.” Though, I don’t think he would care.
His vision of building a company was so obsessive that he pushed himself and others to unbelievable extremes.
It would ultimately harm relationships, most specifically, the on-again, off-again and finally on-again friendship with Paul Allen.
The series spends a great deal of time talking about the second half of Gates’ life working on philanthropic efforts through his foundation.
This was fascinating to me, learning more about how he has taken on huge problems like polio eradication, sanitation and global warming with unflinching courage.
Gates is a voracious reader and attacks these problems in a systematic and scientific way.
He is not afraid to invest huge amounts of money to help overcome these problems. Having said that, he only invests in people and ideas that will provide a significant return on investment.
There are several things that become themes as the foundation’s philanthropy is discussed:
- It is clear that he and his wife, Melinda, are true partners.
- He is not satisfied until the issues are dealt with completely and effectively.
- He is not afraid of issues like nuclear energy, where he has become an unlikely supporter.
Philanthropist Gates is much easier to embrace than Capitalist Gates.
At first, you feel that the documentary is asking you to choose between the good Bill Gates and the evil Bill Gates.
The longer I watched, the more I asked myself, “Can both be true? Is this a story of evil Bill that is redeemed by good Bill, or is his entire life a mix of grey?”
One subplot that runs through the entire documentary is Gates’ love of reading. He reads at a mind-numbing 150 pages an hour with 80% retention.
These are not young adult novels; these are difficult scientific research books or tomes on modern technology.
It is not surprising that you see him carrying huge bags of books or reading in his huge personal library.
It is this subplot that leads us to the final few minutes.
Bill and Melinda are seen rowing on the canal behind their house. It is shortly after that where he begins to quote “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
More specifically, he speaks of Gatsby reaching out to the green light off Daisy’s shore. The green light is understood as Gatsby’s unending optimism and the idea that everything is attainable with intellect and hard work.
The quote is inscribed in Gates’ library. The comparisons to the novel are uncanny.
Gatsby lived in a huge mansion on the water. So do the Gates. Gatsby was a part of the nouveau riche as is Gates.
There is a certain romanticism in Gatsby’s dreams, even though they seem absurd ultimately. Gates’ dreams are noble if not romantic.
It is hard not to admire his desire to help eliminate polio, sanitation needs in developing nations and eliminating global warming.
Gates’ dreams are equally appealing, but the question that is asked is this: “Are these dreams achievable?”
It is fascinating that Gates uses the example of Gatsby as a metaphor. Gatsby is a tragic character who never realizes his dream. It made me melancholy for a moment.
What if Gates’ philanthropic dreams go unrealized? What if he becomes the tragic hero that Gatsby was?
One last thought: This documentary is timely. Global warming will be a huge issue in the next U.S. election, as will socialism.
Do we choose Bernie Sanders’ dream of an America where the uber-wealthy are taxed heavily, or do we buy a world vision where the uber-rich have pledged to give away most of their wealth in philanthropy?
Do we trust the generosity of billionaires or the voracious appetites of a government bent on equality through entitlements?
This documentary hints at the conflict even though it doesn’t directly address it.
The only time politics is mentioned is in relation to Trump’s position on renegotiating the China trade relationship. The short-term affect was sidelining Gates’ desire to build multiple nuclear reactors in China.
The documentary raises more questions than it answers. That seems fitting seeing that Bill Gates’ life leaves more questions than it answers.
Creator and director: Davis Guggenheim
Starring: Bill Gates
The documentary’s website is here.
Ed Hogan is a public school teacher and ordained Baptist minister who lives in Houston, Texas. He served previously on the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.