Bill Gates is fascinating for many reasons: his wealth, his habits, his ideas.
The new Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates covers them all. It follows his extraordinary journey, from globalizing office software to building one of the world’s most influential companies, becoming its richest man, and now, leading its largest foundation.
But the reason I’m fascinated by Gates has nothing to do with any of that. It’s not his success, or his way of thinking, or his approach to solving the world’s most critical problems with tech. To me, the most interesting thing about him is what he teaches us about what it means to be human.
Throughout the Netflix series, an interviewer asks Gates silly, get-to-know-you questions in quick succession: “What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite animal? What do you eat for breakfast?” But every now and then, he throws in some curveballs, maybe to catch Gates off guard and get him to veer from his canned responses. Or maybe the show is just edited to make it look like Gates is getting a low-stakes grilling. Whatever the reason, at one point, the interviewer asks this question: “What was the worst day of your life?”
Gates is a composed man. He’s reserved, but seems at ease answering all sorts of questions. But this one is different. He squints. He looks down. He appears to be thinking, but not really. He knows what he has to say — he just doesn’t want to say it. No one would. But finally, he says it:
“The day my mother died.”
There, sitting in the library of his $127 million mansion, is a man who’s achieved everything there could possibly be to achieve, whose life — at least to us outsiders — is defined by his business success.
And yet he didn’t say, “The day Steve Jobs accused me of stealing from him.”
He didn’t say, “The day I was humiliated by getting hit in the face with a cream pie during a visit with Belgian business and government leaders.”
He didn’t say, “The day we were forced to pay $1.3 billion in antitrust fines.”
No, the worst day in the Microsoft billionaire’s life was the day his mother died.
No matter who you are or who you aspire to be, at the end of the day, life is not about money or status or power. It’s not even about legacy.
Life is about people; the people you meet, the people you miss. Even the people you hate. Most of all, life is about the people you love. Some of them will die before you do. Nothing will ever bring them back.
Every one of us has limited time. But when it comes to spending it with those we hold dearest, we might have even less. Gates reminded me of this fact. It’s his greatest lesson of all.