If there was ever an outlier, it was Bill Gates. Netflix has just released a three-part documentary called Inside Bill’s Brain that, as the title promises, digs deep into the Microsoft cofounder’s cranium. Once ensconced, we find him as unusual as we expected. His brain, says his wife Melinda, is “total chaos,” but then she explains that there’s a method by which Gates can organize his thoughts, merge them with huge amounts of information that he Dysons up (Hoovers are too flimsy for this simile), and then puts them to work. We see the brain in action as he cheerfully puts his obsessions on display. These days they include getting rid of polio, creating cheap toilets in impoverished nations, and designing a nuke plant that won’t melt down.
These are all, obviously, noble pursuits. But even as filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) makes every effort to make those enterprises entertaining, Inside just leaves viewers wanting to spend more time with his subject. Amazingly, Gates has agreed to an open-ended Ask Me Anything session with Guggenheim, and throughout the 157-minute runtime touches on nearly all aspects of his thinking. In his unmistakable nasal drone, Gates examines his own life with a candor that lets him describe his big decisions with bemused attachment. His intellect is unmistakable, as is his weirdness. I’ve been interviewing Gates for 35 years and I can testify that this is the real thing.
Though Guggenheim had no intention of doing so, as far as I can see, Inside Bill’s Brain also does something else: It demolishes the premise of Malcolm Gladwell‘s nonfiction book Outliers. Gladwell proclaimed in that tome that he had decoded the formula for genius, deciding that it was 10,000 hours of practice, a nurturing background, good timing, and a bit of luck. The Beatles pounded on their instruments in months of all-night sets in the Hamburg demimonde, he wrote. And Bill Gates, barely a tyke, was programming almost 24/7.
I have never bought this. Anyone can spend 10,000 hours doing something, but in the whole world only one band made the music of the Beatles. Adele, I am sure, has crooned for 10,000 hours (undoubtedly why she has so many throat problems), and, although she’s good, she’s not a genius. Amy Winehouse, on the other hand, genius! And I bet she died before 10,000 hours singing with the Dap Kings. And what about Steve Jobs? If you wanted to be Steve Jobs, how would your 10,000 hours be spent?
That’s why it was so disappointing the time I asked Bill Gates himself about Outliers. Gladwell had written about Gates in the book, wrongly, I felt, because no formula could explain him. But Gates agreed with Gladwell! Yes, he told me, he spent much more than 10,000 hours programming, and was also hardcore about business, blah blah blah, but, he concluded, the hypothesis was correct.
Today, I feel vindicated. Inside Bill’s Brain lays the Gladwell Theorem to waste. By delving into Gates’ very early life, Guggenheim reveals that, basically, Bill Gates arrived on Earth as a Martian. From the instant baby Gates joined his well-off clan, he understood there was a giant impedance mismatch between his cosmic intellect and that of the world. There’s an amazing moment when he recounts the time his parents had him take a test to get into an exclusive private school for the sixth grade. He asked himself, did he want to go, figuring that if not, he would purposely blow the test. But then he realized, even then, that he was too competitive to do that, and got the high score.
So it is no surprise that this crazy driven, crazy talented, and crazy business-savvy outlier wound up creating the software industry and becoming the world’s richest human. He was marked, if not necessarily for greatness, for uniqueness well before he had time for 10,000 hours of anything.
Guggenheim does an interesting thing with the genius he profiles. For all its probing of Gates’ amazing psyche, the documentary is really an attempt to understand his heart. When it comes to that, he’s a human being like the rest of us, breaking loose of parents, coping with the deaths of loved ones, and seeking love. Episode One explores Gates’ contentious relationship with his mother, a patrician who couldn’t get to her son until a therapist helped him logically conclude that resistance was non-optimal. Episode Two has him dealing with the passing of his closest childhood friend, who creates a gap in his life that even Paul Allen or Steve Ballmer can’t quite fill. (Allen’s death is drawn out here.) And when Part Three isn’t building a case for the revival of nuclear energy, it zeroes in on the love story between the two pillars of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Melinda Gates steals the show.)