Inside Bill's Brain

And my favourite hagiographies.

Seven days ago, we welcomed our second child, Noah, into the world. I’d forgotten so many of the details of newborns - they’d blurred into my fatigue-drenched memory.

But what could be more spectacular than a tiny human with their entire existence in your hands, the endless possibilities of life ahead of them, and for now, just soft sleep on warm afternoons.

In the quiet of these first days, I’ve found time to watch Inside Bill’s Brain on Netflix. I loved it, especially seeing Gates’ efforts to create better third-world sanitation, eradicate polio, and invent alternative forms of nuclear energy. But Rotten Tomatoes only gave it 40%, and I didn’t disagree with Brad Slingerland’s SITAL assessment which described it as “30-40 minutes of breezy questioning of Gates spliced into three hours of miscellaneous Microsoft history”.

Perhaps the divergence for me comes from the fact that biographical documentaries are just about my favourite movie genre. To get these movies made, too often they verge on hagiography, which is a great word that means “a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence.

Without further ado then, here are my all-time favourite hagiographies.

Please reply and tell me if I’ve missed a good one!

If you’re interested, I had a great chat last week with Ted Richards on The Richards Report about Blackbird’s investment decision-making process, why and how I track every minute of my time, and the transformative power of storytelling.

In a now iconic line, Lena Dunham’s character in Girls said: "I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of a generation." I think Jia Tolentino can rightfully claim that mantle now. I’m enjoying her book Trick Mirror, which is full of crystalline insight into the internet-powered world we all inhabit:

Throughout the eighties and nineties, people had been gathering on the internet in open forums, drawn, like butterflies, to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise.

In the twenty-first century it would sometimes be impossible to differentiate between the pretext for an experience, the record of that experience, and the experience itself.

On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.

“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.” ― The Great Gatsby

The blindness of bias.

Or, thinking I'll play better tennis by using the same racquet as Nick Kyrgios.

Hanging on the wall of the Blackbird Melbourne office boardroom is Buster Benson’s infographic of all the cognitive biases that afflict humans making decisions.

I’ve had two profound experiences recently, one testing out tennis racquets, the other hiring new team members, that have revealed the impact of bias, and the value of tools that help you work around it.

Recently, I visited the Tennis Lab at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne to find, quantifiably, the best tennis racquet for me.

The Tennis Lab is a full-sized tennis court, surrounded by six Hawkeye cameras tuned to track your ball speed, spin and accuracy. You can see a quick background to the Tennis Lab here.

I hit with ten different racquets, all (crucially) painted black so that I couldn’t associate them with a particular brand, colour or player.

Using a ball machine for consistency, I hit 20 identical crosscourt forehands, crosscourt backhands, off-forehands, and twenty serves. A technician gave me a racquet at random for each test. Simultaneously, I rated each racquet subjectively.

At the end, a report was generated that recorded for each stroke, and each racquet, my power, spin and accuracy, that looked like this:

Across all the testing, the Wilson Clash 100 emerged both objectively, and subjectively, as the best racquet for me.

Related: After getting this recommendation, I thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into the story behind the Clash 100.

The background to this is that earlier this year, I switched to the Nick Kyrgios’ endorsed Yonex DR-98.

As I scan my memory for why I made the switch, my reasoning was:

- An affinity to seeing Kyrgios play with the racquet.
- A thought that I might replicate Stan Wrawrinka’s Yonex-enabled, bullet-like one-handed backhand (even though he uses a different Yonex model).
- The blue colour.
- The square head.
- The recall of playing surprisingly well with it once earlier in the year.

It’s fair to say that none of these were objectively related to optimising my performance.

In a blind test at the Tennis Lab, my own Yonex was subjectively one of my least favourites, and less accurate, less powerful, and less spin-friendly than at least five other racquets I tested (out of ten).

And the racquet that both the data, and my subjective assessment judged the best for me was a racquet I would have ignored for the fact its head size was 100 square inches, that I didn’t see myself as ‘a Wilson guy’, and because I’m not a huge fan of red.

I think we make decisions in our lives on an equally flawed basis more often than we like to admit.

My experience at the Tennis Lab was a visceral reminder of power of blinding in making decisions, and a reinforcement of the power of the hiring platform Applied. (Disclosure: Applied is a Blackbird portfolio company, and I sit on the board).

Applied was founded by the Australian-born, London-based, Harvard Kennedy School of Government-educated CEO Kate Glazebrook and helps companies find the best person for every role, by removing bias from the hiring process.

Applied’s platform does this by blinding, randomly assigning, and chunking the assessment of candidate applications, so that the only thing the reviewer sees is an answer to a question. And the only thing the reviewer assesses is the quality of that answer on a scale of 1-5, without knowing:

- the candidate’s name, age, LinkedIn profile, twitter feed, photo, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity… or any other factor that inevitably influences how they are assessed.
- how the candidate answered previous questions.
- how other people perceived the candidate, or the candidate’s answer.

As a team at Blackbird, we’ve used Applied to find our way to Mason, Tip, Sascha, Daniel, two cohorts of the Startmate Fellowship, and our new General Counsel.

We all voted blind on the quality of applicant answers, and generated a stack-ranked list of the top candidates applying to each role.

In every case, one of the top three ranked applicants in the assessment process ended up getting the role. And in every case, after the voting, I was surprised to see who didn’t make the cut. Often, better credentialed folks ranked much lower than they would have if we were just judging them from LinkedIn.

You can read about the origins of Applied in this fascinating post.

The more you look for bias in decision-making, the more you find it.

The goal isn’t to remove it. The goal is to identify it, and correct for it where it results in impairment.

I think experiences like the Tennis Lab and Applied are just the beginning of our understanding of how to improve this part of the human psyche, and I’m fascinated to find more.

“I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.”

― E.B. White

Quick Links:

Roger Federer as Religious Experience by David Foster-Wallace & Strokes of Genius (about the Nadal-Federer rivalry).

Nick Kyrgios: talent to burn & this mind-blowing-for-its-honesty podcast with Kyrgios from earlier this year.

Crisis on Infinite Courts: On Novak Djokovic’s confounding marathon win against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.

Andre Agassi - Open (One of the greatest ever sports biographies).

Levels of the Game - John McPhee

The Inner Game of Tennis (if you don’t already own this, buy it now).

You meet God in the midst of the Troubles

'Say Nothing' by Patrick Radden-Keefe.

The Troubles saw more than 4,000 people killed in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. Mostly Catholic republicans fought a mix of Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British armed forces over the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

One of the iconic photos from The Troubles, captures Father Alec Reid, administering the last rites to a British soldier who had just been beaten to death after taking a wrong turn and driving into the path of a funeral procession for a member of the IRA.

In Father Reid’s pocket was a long letter from the Sinn Fein, to the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume. The letter represented the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process. Reid handed the letter over stained in blood.

Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

- Seamus Heaney

Patrick Radden Keefe’s book, ‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ is filled with equally staggering stories.

“Everything is strange for the first few moments, then after a time normal existence seems strange.”

Stakeknife, aka Freddie Scappaticci, the lead member of the IRA’s Internal Security Unit tasked with investigating touts (IRA leaks), was a tout himself.

Dr Ross, the prison doctor who oversaw the death of 10 men during the Irish hunger strikes took his own life, with a shotgun, in 1986.

Sisters Dolours and Marian Price carried out the bombing of the Old Bailey at just 23 and 19 years of age respectively.

‘Nothing is going to come out of this that is commensurate with the pain that you will put into it.’

One of the striking things about The Troubles is the poetry in the way it’s described. Even the name ‘The Troubles’ sounds more like the gossip of two neighbours discussing a marriage breakdown - ‘they’re having some troubles’ - than internecine warfare. Some more examples of the lyricism:

  • The Unknowns, a secret IRA unit entrusted with “very specific jobs, obeying orders without question.”

  • The murals, which still exist today, bearing phrases like: GOD MADE THE CATHOLICS, BUT THE ARMALITE MADE THEM EQUAL.

  • The absolutism:

“the man who in the name of Ireland accepts as a “final settlement” anything less by one iota than separation from England is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation … that it were better that he had not been born”

“New recruits to the Provos were told to anticipate one of two certain outcomes: ‘Either you’re going to jail or you’re going to die.’”

  • Even employing the verb to be ‘disappeared’ as a way of describing the act of abducting, murdering and secretly burying a victim.

Radden-Keefe’s interlinking of the lives of The Troubles’ key figures, like Jean McConville, the Price sisters, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams is masterful.

Adams emerges as the most perplexing character, responsible for both the conflict and its resolution.

“the fiction that Adams had never been a paramilitary created a political space in which interlocutors who might not want to be seen negotiating with terrorists could bring themselves to negotiate with him.”

‘Say Nothing’ is a remarkable book with “no heroes, just more and less complicated villains.” And the echoes of The Troubles continue to ring out today.

“As everything has turned out,’ he said, ‘not one death was worth it.”

- Brendan Hughes

Quick Links:

As a follow-up to ‘Say Nothing’, watch Alex Gibney’s documentary ‘No Stone Unturned’ about the massacre of six innocent men as they watched Ireland's victory over Italy at the 1994 World Cup.

For more Patrick Radden-Keefe, read:

For more books, you can keep coming back to Book Marks best reviewed list.

Excellent Things #12

You learn through what you go through.

Anthony Joshua is one of the most extraordinary athletes alive today. And until his recent loss to Andy Ruiz, he was on a directly ascending path to becoming one of the greatest ever boxers.

The loss to Ruiz, a shorter, fatter, 25-1 outsider, was a complete shock. The fall for Joshua could barely have been greater.

But his mental response was perfect. If you watch the video above, from 14:45, you can see him, just minutes after the fight, consoling his parents, and already reframing the loss:

You go back to the drawing board. You talk, you watch, you study. And then you become better. You become stronger. 

And if you don’t become stronger, you become weaker, and then you stop. But it’s your choice.

Do you stop, or do you keep going?

Joshua’s response reminded me of this recent BBC article:

Top athletes have a way of turning pain into rocket fuel. The defeat becomes a reason to push themselves even further the next time.

Michael Jordan famously didn’t make the cut for his varsity team, Cameron Smith didn’t make the QLD U/17s side, and Tom Brady was still in tears about being drafted in the sixth round, even after winning three Super Bowls.

Adversity, and pain, seem to be necessary ingredients to the greatest success.

I’ve always said, don’t let the failures get to your heart, and don’t let success get to your head.

In that sense, I’ve always felt like the belt’s never represented me. I’m a man who stands alone. 

I make boxing. Boxing doesn’t make me. 

I was a man before I held those belts. I was a respectful person before I held those belts. 

And, I’ll be the same person when I retire, and those belts aren’t around my waist. 

- Anthony Joshua

Quick Links:

The other boxer I follow with fascination is Vasyl Lomachenko, who is technically maybe the best boxer of all-time. See exactly why here and here.

I first fell in love with Joshua’s story in this Netflix documentary about him.

Spoiler Alert: The fight that cemented Joshua’s reputation was this one against Wladimir Klitschko.

Related: The Klitschko documentary is also amazing. Wladimir’s big brother Vitali is now the Mayor of Kiev, which is a more amazing story in itself.

Also Related: You should watch Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom on Netflix.

Excellent Things #11

Nicolas Jaar, Keith Jarrett, & Nils Frahm

Two musical heroes in one… Here’s Nicolas Jaar, describing what’s so special to him about Keith Jarrett’s music.

Jaar describes it as "music that's as close to language as possible." Jarrett is so perfectly good at piano, that he can play it like he speaks, immediately, and with the precise intent he conjures up between each millisecond.

The track Jaar specifically mentions in the video is ‘Part 3’ from Jarrett’s ‘Carnegie Hall Concert’. Hopefully, that song alone makes this email worth your time.

If you are new to either artist, start with The Koln Concert for Jarrett, and the Essential Mix for Jaar.

In the video, Jaar also mentions Ethiopian composer Mulatu Astatke, and the distinctive pentatonic (5-note) scales that underpins a lot of Ethiopian music.

I got turned onto this golden, Ethiopian musical seam via one of my favourite discovery methods - The Quietus’ ‘Baker’s Dozen’, where artists talk about the albums that mean the most to them.

In this instance, it was Nils Frahm recommending ‘Ethiopiques Vol. 21’ which featured Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.

We had Nils Frahm’s ‘Circling’ playing as our firstborn son came into the world. (If you are new to Nils by the way, start with Screws.)

That was almost four years ago. Now he’s a little boy that does drawings of us going walking together.

I recently rediscovered a note I’d written to him before he was born. He didn’t avoid my sweet tooth, but he turned out just fine.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be OK.

I want you to know your Mum loves you.

I want you to know that I love you.

I want you to know you deserve to be loved.

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