Wisdom//

5 Important Lessons From the “Inside Bill’s Brain” Documentary

A new Netflix documentary series details the inner workings of Bill Gates’s mind, marriage, and philanthropic work, and leaves viewers with important lessons about work, love, and finding their personal definitions of success.

Courtesy of Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

Bill Gates has always been ambitious: He decided he wanted to be a “groundbreaker” when he was 14. The final scene of Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, a three-part documentary just released on Netflix, features a quote from Mary Maxwell Gates, Bill’s mother, that sums up her son’s trajectory, and also offers a powerful insight for all of us: “Each one of us has to start out with developing his or her own definition of success, and when we have these specific expectations of ourselves, we’re more likely to live up to them.” 

But what happens if those expectations involve changing the world as we know it? Bill Gates has never been one to take on small-scale or easily solved problems. In fact, the series shows the extent to which he has sought to solve problems that many have deemed unsolvable: eradicating polio, finding clean sources of energy to combat climate change, vaccinating and improving sanitation in the world’s poorest countries, and improving U.S. public education, among others. 

“You have to pick a pretty finite number of things to tell your mind to work on. You have to decide, what should you care about?” Bill says in the series. His passions involve making the world a better place through intelligent and mindful uses of technology. Here are the five biggest takeaways from Inside Bill’s Brain that you can use to apply to your own life and future success.

Relentless optimism and resiliency can change the way you see the world

When Bill was very young, he was nicknamed “Happy Boy” because he was always smiling. And not much has changed. While still in his 20s, he was a co-founder of Microsoft and managed thousands of people, but he maintained that same positive attitude even through periods of professional stress. Now, alongside his wife and partner Melinda Gates, he runs what has become the world’s largest foundation, spending nearly $5 billion each year to tackle some of the world’s most pressing health and development problems. So what keeps him going despite a demanding job and chaotic schedule? His unwavering optimism, Inside Bill Gates shows. Even in the face of setbacks — from learning of new polio diagnoses when eradication felt so much closer, or struggling to make good at home and at work — Bill’s attitude kept him going.

One of Bill’s most stunning moments of optimism and resilience occurred when he was a child. When faced with the death of his childhood best friend, Kent, in a mountain climbing accident, Bill was shattered, but was determined to carry on. “I’m sure we would’ve gone to college together,” he says in the series. Despite the loss, Bill decided he would have to do the things he and Kent set out to do together — they often pondered if they’d become CEOs, ambassadors, or even generals — by himself. Bill’s perseverance in the face of emotional turmoil shows us that it is possible to carry on even in some of the most challenging circumstances.

Make time to unplug and recharge, no matter how busy you are 

Even with his constantly “on” mind, Bill takes time to unplug and recharge so he can be his best self for his family and the foundation. Inside Bill’s Brain shows how, for one week every single year, Bill retreats to the Hood Canal for a “think week,” where he spends time buried in books and technical papers, reading, writing, and thinking about the world at large and the role he can play in improving it. Bill started taking “think weeks” in the 1990s, when he was still running Microsoft, and the practice continues. “Bill can deal with a lot of complexity, and he likes complexity, and he thrives on complexity,” Melinda says in the series. “So, when Bill stills and quiets himself, and all these incredibly complex thoughts that he’s had and the ways he can see the world and can pull ideas together that other people can’t see, he thinks his best.” This habit serves as a reminder to us all that downtime is crucial, no matter how packed your schedule might be. If Bill Gates can make time for himself, you can, too.

Build and embrace equal partnerships in all facets of your life 

For so long, Bill got to call the shots as CEO of Microsoft. He admits that it wasn’t until he partnered with his wife on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that he truly learned the the beauty of melding minds and working alongside someone, in an equal capacity, with a different way of looking at things. Although it took some time to blend their working styles, Bill and Melinda now work seamlessly as a team. “We listen and respect each other, and then we come to a common viewpoint and that’s what we take forward,” Melinda says. And while she says that her husband has a scientific way of looking at things, Melinda says her strength is her ability to bring the “human experience” into their work, ultimately cultivating a well-rounded perspective to bring into each of their joint endeavors. Bill and Melinda’s partnership serves as an important lesson in compromise and teamwork. “In the case of Melinda, it’s a truly equal partner. She’s a lot like me in that she’s optimistic and she’s interested in science, but she’s better with people than I am,” Bill says. 

Giving back to your community should be a priority

The value of giving back to your community was instilled in Bill from the time he was a child, and although he spent many years working “night and day,” building Microsoft from the ground up, he always found a way back to his philanthropic roots. Together with Melinda, Bill decided that the vast resources they acquired through Microsoft would be best spent on society. But unlike many other philanthropists, Bill looks to give back in ways that are often overlooked, or deemed not so glamorous in the eyes of society. For example, the foundation has spent an incredible amount of time and resources reimagining sanitation, specifically toilets, in developing countries to lower the number of childhood deaths. “Three million times a year, parents are burying children because of diarrhea. And in the world that I’m spending time in, I’ve never met a single parent who had to bury a child because they died of diarrhea. So it makes you wonder, hey, is the world applying its incredible set of resources to eliminate these deaths?” Bill asks in the series. His focus on giving back and optimizing impact sets him apart, and sheds light on significant social issues that often receive little attention. 

Remember that even the most successful people are flawed 

Inside Bill’s Brain offers us a very important reminder: Even the best, brightest, most talented, and successful people are imperfect, and that’s OK. Bill isn’t shy when it comes to owning up to his mistakes. In the series, he admits that, at times, he put his professional ventures before his wife and children. He’d skip meals, pass up sleep, and at some points, his work became his entire life. “I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacations,” he says in the series. If Bill were hit by a bus today, he says that the one thing he’d wish he had done more of was thank Melinda, he tells director Davis Guggenheim. That contains an important lesson for all of us: No one is perfect, but we can all benefit from taking a close look at our priorities to see if they reflect our values, and where necessary, course-correct, just as Bill did. 

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