Things I came to know after watching “Inside Bill’s Brain”

picture -Tayla Jeffs | Unsplashed

Bill Gates is one of those business leaders who will be remembered for centuries to come. What has made him who he is? The docu-series unravels the making of this visionary. It will inspire not only tech and business professionals but all of us- whether you are a primary care giver at home, a friend, a spouse, a political leader, a healthcare volunteer, a scientist, a social worker, or a teacher.

Why did the richest man in the world suddenly get interested in philanthropy? Was it climbing the Maslow’s hierarchy that led him to this self-realisation? Was this a value instilled by his mother, Mary Gates?(she was an advisor to many organizations including non-profits around the Seattle community)While a lot has been written about Microsoft, some aspects of Bill’s life might not be known widely.

Curiosity —As a child Gates was inherently curious. He was far ahead of his class when it came to Maths and Science. Even today he reads voraciously. His tote bag gets refreshed every week with 5–6 new books. When on vacation, he reads around 15 books at a speed of 150 pages an hour with 90% retention. When he is asked about his greatest fear, he says he doesn’t want his brain to stop working. He started to take “Think Weeks” in the 90s, when he would take time off and lock himself in a cabin near Hood Canal with books and technical papers. He describes this as his CPU time because his brain thrives on complexity. He slots information in his brain and creates frameworks while taking notes. For any topic of his interest, he reads 14 -15 books in his pursuit to comprehend it holistically.

Healthcare mission—In 2014, Bill gave a TED Talk on an imminent pandemic, which now seems prescient. It is not by chance that he was able to predict it . The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had been doing a lot of work on basic healthcare and he had been researching a lot of medical literature. They started philanthropic activities by donating computers to kids in Africa. However, they realised that in a place where 3 million kids were dying because of diarrhea every year, distributing computers in schools would have limited impact. This troubled Bill and Melinda as parents, because in their privileged world they would have never witnessed this.There was very little innovation in sanitation in the non-developed world. The foundation partnered with Doulaye Kone and Peter Janicki and after extensive trials, came up with the Omni Processor that treated sewage and required no electricity and little water. The foundation undertook another project which aimed at developing low cost toilets. The foundation has also worked towards reducing number of polio cases in countries like Nigeria.While the number of cases plummeted as a result of their vaccination program,it wasn’t completely eradicated. They drew up satellite imagery and found out that because aid workers didn’t have accurate maps of districts, the border areas were being missed during vaccination program. Their use of technology to solve problems was creating a huge impact, until stalled by Boko Haram.

Interest in Energy — Bill is worried about global warming. He believes that nuclear energy is a clean alternate to carbon fuels.However, this solution isn’t exactly popular with governments — his team at TerraPower explains why. More people die from coal pollution every year than people killed in nuclear power plant related incidents till date. However, the field of nuclear energy has seen little research in the past 25 years and there is lack of innovation in this sphere. The Chernobyl disaster happened because the design that was used was created in 1940s and was built not with computers, but with slide rules. Most nuclear reactors have design and implementation of 1960s including the Fukushima reactor. It is possible to create a nuclear reactor with minimum error and risk if it is designed keeping a fail-safe mechanism in place for power back-up. Bill and his company created a simulation of the traveling wave reactor that would use depleted uranium(available in abundance at nuclear dump sites). This innovation was possible because they had invested a lot in running high speed computing models and prototypes. For large scale deployment, this needed manufacturing at scale which was only possible in China.The company had sealed a deal with Chinese manufacturers. However the plan was foiled in 2019 by Trump administration when it levied trade related sanctions with China. Bill is still hopeful and when asked if he regrets his investment,he retorts saying if he didn’t invest in this,who else would.

Bill the boss — In his early years, Bill worked frantically and hardly took vacations. He was infamous for telling his subordinates,“ That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard”. He would remember his employees’ vehicle number plates and check who was in the office and who wasn’t. His co-founder Paul Allen, on the other hand would go off to Cape Canaveral and watch space shuttles being launched. Paul soon became tired of working day and night and this led to a rift between with Paul exiting Microsoft. They patched up in 2018 but Paul died the same year. Bill had his share of tough times as well when Microsoft had to go through long battles with anti-trust law suits filed by US govt. He admits to being naive and arrogant in his early years but his attitude mellowed with experience and age.

Personal Life —He talks about how his mom was the biggest influence that pushed him to be his best version. She made him take interest in the smallest of things. While Bill would be happy staying locked up in his room, Mary forced him to be social and would look for opportunities where he could interact with other people. She even introduced him to Warren Buffet. Not only did Warren Buffet pledge billions of dollars to his foundation, but is also a close friend. Bill talks about how he was hesitant in committing himself to marriage as he was not sure about the time it would take up. Today he feels that Melinda complements him perfectly. They have been equal partners in life and also in running their foundation.If he is armed with stats, Melinda questions the feasibility and applicability of solutions. Bill admits that Melinda is definitely better when it comes to dealing with people. When quizzed, if he was hypothetically hit by a bus, what would he have regretted the most. His reply — “ Not thanking Melinda enough”.

To sum it up, Bill Gates’ ventures in energy, healthcare and sanitation still have a long way to go. When asked if the initial setbacks make him want to give up, he replies, “No, it only makes me want to work harder”. That is a valuable lesson to learn from him.

A marketing professional, eternal optimist, lifelong learner, nature lover, culture explorer, trivia enthusiast and yoga practitioner