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Documentary Review | Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

Inside Bill’s Brain succeeds in what its title promises. It manages to decipher the enigmatic brain of Bill Gates to a great extent.

David Guggenheim, the director of the documentary does it by throwing hard questions at him in one-to-one interviews, by digging into his past and piecing together interesting bits and most importantly, by exploring the challenging work his philanthropic foundation has taken on in recent times.

Inside Bill's Brain
World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like my last watch Death to 2020, I went uninitiated into this docuseries, too. Frankly, this one didn’t disappoint either.

Ever since Bill Gates stepped down from the Microsoft board in 2008, he along with his wife, Melinda, has been trying to solve some of the hardest humanitarian challenges our world faces.

Through their philanthropic organization, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill and Melinda have taken on problems that many other billionaires would steer clear of. Inside Bill’s Brain features their efforts to solve sanitation problem and polio eradication in the third-world countries.

But, had Inside Bill’s Brain been about Bill’s altruistic thrusts only, it would not have made for an engaging watch. Kudos to Guggenheim for having the vision to intersperse gripping narratives from Bill’s early childhood and his early days of Microsoft into the documentary.

Though a lot of the information exists in the public domain, it’s the treatment – the braiding of different pieces that makes the documentary interesting and keeps the viewer hooked.

“He has such a good memory and he has such an incredible capacity for cramming information in his head. If something doesn’t line up, he will challenge you.”

Dr Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Family And The Early Influence

Bill’s sisters Kristi and Libby share many accounts of his precocious childhood and his super-competitive nature. Both attribute his success to their parents, especially to their mother, Mary Gates.

Despite having a bittersweet relation with Bill early on, Mary Gates influence on him was never-ending.

In a heart-rending moment in the documentary when the director asks Bill about the worst day in his life. He pauses for what seems like an eternity – looks sideways with a pensive look on his face and says,“…the day my mom died.”

Bill values Melinda as her real partner, not his superficial partner. She is an equal contributor in all the works of the foundation and Bill, seemingly, does not venture anywhere without her opinion. “She is his guidepost,” says Kristi.

He likes complexity…he thrives on complexity. He can pull ideas together that other people can’t.

Melinda Gates about her husband Bill Gates

Paul Allen

Bill’s love and hate relationship with his close friend and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, forms the highlight of the documentary.

From their time together in school to starting up Microsoft to Bill imposing on his former school senior to work hard and eventually hiring a President to replace him, the documentary runs the entire gamut of their relations.

Bill was a workaholic and Paul, though equally diligent, loved taking time off. This element of his cofounder having fun clearly didn’t sit well with Bill.

I loved being fanatic and I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacation,” avers Bill Gates when reminiscing of his early Microsoft days.

Over the years, the wedge between the two grew wider. Bill did not see Paul even as the latter fought and lost a prolonged battle with Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Unfortunately, this is a price that co-founders sometimes have to pay. The cracks occur especially when a startup breaks out into a bigger league. All of sudden, perspectives change and ego clashes ensue.

It’s never an easy road. More times than not, you gain something only to lose something else.

Davis Guggenheim does a great job in unveiling this sensitive story to public.

The Outsized Thinking

While speaking about Bill’s ability to process information and his outsized thinking, Melinda comments:

“He is very curious about lots of topics. What he does is he makes a framework in his mind and then he starts slotting in the information.”

In the later part of the documentary, when the director asks him about his blindsides, Bill replies that innovation-businesses are the only businesses that he brings anything to at all.

“I like to push the level of risk of doing things that wouldn’t happen without leadership and vision.

Bill Gates

Bill underlines his most audacious challenge to date: building a travelling wave reactor. His overarching goal – promote nuclear energy to reduce carbon emissions.

His company TerraPower is building a new-age reactor which is different from the reactors in Chernobyl and Fukishama. However, there is always this lurking danger of something going wrong at a nuclear reactor.

So confident appears Bill that when the director throws a tricky one at him, “Would you allow you kids to live downstream from one of these travelling wave reactors?” he replies, “I’d rather have them live right there next to a natural gas plant.

Having seen the documentary, I can tell you one thing. Whenever Bill Gates is confronted with a daunting problem, the first thing he does is get a crack team of brilliant brains together to attack the problem.

I think this is one of his least-talked-about leadership traits yet it’s the overarching one – his knack for picking up best of the best to get the job done.

Human Being Extraordinaire

Several moments in the show tell you that despite all the phenomenal fame and riches, Bill Gates still faces setbacks and difficulties. It’s his ability to overcome setbacks and his determination that makes him an extraordinary individual.

When he embarked upon his quest for fixing world’s toilet problem five years ago, he wrote to many top universities for coming together to find an innovative solution. Most universities didn’t bother to reply, he coyly admits. Yes, they ignored a request from Bill Gates.

When Davis Guggenheim poses his final question – that none of the three projects have actually worked the way he imagined, Bill replies, “…sometime you got to work harder.”


After the first ten minutes into the documentary, I paused and thought to myself, “Wait! Is this documentary just a grand vehicle to showcase his foundation’s philanthropic work?” Thankfully, I was wrong. As you go into the documentary, you start to appreciate the director’s craft. He draws you into his work and offers an unvarnished insight into the evolution of Bill Gates’ thinking.

To end with Mary Gates’ quote, “Each one of us has to start out with developing our own definition of success. And when we have these specific expectations of ourselves, we are more likely to live up to them. Ultimately it is not what you get or even what you give, it is what you become.”

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Inside Bill's Brain review

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