You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you. Be stubborn on your vision, but flexible on details. Failure is necessary for invention. Take pride in choices, not gifts. Be right a lot. And ditch PowerPoint presentations for team meetings.
These are some of the principles that have helped Amazon founder Jeff Bezos become one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and lead one of the world’s largest tech companies.
Bezos shared some valuable leadership advice last weekend at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where the Blue Origin founder was honored at this year’s Pathfinder Awards for his contributions to preserving the past and building the future of flight.
His fireside chat in front of 450 people with Steve Taylor, chief pilot for Boeing Flight Services, covered a wide range of topics, from Bezos’ ambitions for space travel to Amazon’s plans for drone delivery.
Some of the principles that Bezos and Amazon abide by, like “failure and invention are inseparable twins,” are certainly relevant this week, as Amazon’s stock fell more than 5 percent after the company disappointed Wall Street with its quarterly earnings report.
Some analysts and critics may say that Amazon “failed” last quarter because it missed profit expectations. And Bezos would likely be perfectly fine with that.
“At Amazon, we have to grow the size of our failures as the size of our company grows,” he said on Saturday. “We have to make bigger and bigger failures — otherwise none of our failures will be needle movers. It’s a very bad sign over the long run if Amazon wasn’t making larger and larger failures. If you do that all along the way, that is going to protect you from ever having to make that big hail mary bet that you sometimes see companies make right before they fail or go out of existence.”
Whether you’ve just launched a startup or you’re a 10-year veteran for a corporate giant — or really anyone — Bezos’ comments are worth a listen. Here’s a recap of the advice:
Take pride in your choices, not your gifts
This is something Bezos hopes that kids understand, and that parents know to preach to younger folks. He said it’s easy for a talented young person to take pride in how athletic or smart they are, and that’s fine — you should celebrate your gifts and be happy, Bezos said.
“But you can’t be proud of them,” he added. “They are gifts, after all. They were given to you. What you can be proud of is your choices. How did you decide to use your gifts? Did you study hard? Did you work hard? Did you practice?”
Bezos said that people who are really successful combine gifts and hard work.
“The hard work is part of a choice,” he said. “You get to decide that and that is something when you’re looking back on your life, that you will be very proud of.”
Be right a lot
Amazon has 14 leadership principles that the company established long ago. One of those is that “good leaders are right a lot.”
Bezos said that based on his observations, people who are right a lot, listen a lot. And they are also open to changing their mind.
“They seek to disconfirm their most profoundly-held convictions, which is very unnatural for humans,” he said. “Humans, as we go about life, we are mostly very selective in the evidence we let seep into us. We like to observe the evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. People who are right a lot work very hard to do that unnatural thing of trying to disconfirm their beliefs.”
Bezos stressed that changing your mind a lot is “so important.”
“You should never let anybody trap you with anything you’ve said in the past,” he explained. “Life is complicated; the world is complicated. Sometimes you get new data, and when you get new data, you have to change your mind. But sometimes you also don’t get new data and you just re-analyze the situation, and you realize it was more complicated than you initially thought it was, and you change your mind.”
Added Bezos: “Anybody who doesn’t change their mind a lot is dramatically underestimating the complexity of the world we live in.”
Be stubborn on vision and flexible on details
Things that are important take a long time, Bezos said. So you need to be “incredibly relentless” with your vision.
At the same time, along your path to success, you need to be flexible with the details.
“You have to be experimental to accomplish anything important,” Bezos said. “That means you will be wrong a lot. You will try something on your way to that vision and that will be the wrong decision. You’ll have to back up and take a little course correction and try again.”
Failure and invention are inseparable twins
Bezos has always preached the importance of failure. Without it, he says, you can’t have real invention.
Bezos said that everybody wants to be inventive, whether it’s a corporation, a startup, a government agency — “people like invention,” he said.
But the problem is, people also are afraid of failure.
“If you already know it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment,” Bezos said. “Only through experimentation can you get real invention. The most important inventions come from trial and error with lots of failure.”
One reason why people don’t like failure is because it’s embarrassing, Bezos added. He described a toddler trying to put a square peg in a round hole for hours, without success. But it doesn’t keep them from trying and trying. That’s how they learn.
“We all have that when we are little, but as we get older, somehow it’s not as cool to fail,” Bezos said. “It looks clumsy. So we get in our grooves. We have a set of expertise and skills. It’s kind of a comfort zone. But you have to constantly push yourself and say, ‘no, I don’t care about failure.'”
One of Amazon’s biggest failures was its attempt at developing and selling a smartphone. Bezos hopes the company has more failures like that, but even bigger ones.
“At Amazon, we have to grow the size of our failures as the size of our company grows,” he said. “We have to make bigger and bigger failures — otherwise none of our failures will be needle movers. It’s a very bad sign over the long run if Amazon wasn’t making larger and larger failures. If you do that all along the way, that is going to protect you from ever having to make that big hail mary bet that you sometimes see companies make right before they fail or go out of existence.”
You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you
Bezos said he always advises people, particularly young people, to get in touch with what they’re really passionate about.
“It’s a gift to have a passion,” he said. “Some people are lucky; they have more than one passion, maybe two or three. That gives you energy. You can’t force a passion on yourself — it just doesn’t work. You can try, but it’s unlikely to succeed.”
Two pizza teams
This is something that Amazon has preached to its employees since the early days. It’s a simple idea: No team should be so large that it cannot be fed with just two pizzas.
To do great work, you need big teams. But Bezos said you need to “subdivide them.” He said that humans grew up around campfires and telling each other stories. He also pointed out how folks in the crowd on Saturday were sitting with 10 or 12 people at a table.
“That’s the perfect size to have natural human coordination without a lot of structure,” he said.
On the contrary, trying to organize a group of 100 or 500 people takes a lot of structure, he said. For optimal communication, small teams are best.
“If you can arrange to do big things with a multitude of small teams — that takes a lot of effort to organize, but if you can figure that out, the communication on those small teams will be very natural and easy.”
Memos, not PowerPoints
This is probably one of the more well-known practices at Amazon. A while back, the company replaced PowerPoint presentations during meetings with 6-page narratively-structured memos that employees read and take notes on for 30 minutes before speaking to one another and having a discussion.
Bezos said it was one of the “smartest thing we ever did” because of how much more productive it made meetings. In Amazon’s early days, a typical meeting usually went like this: a junior executive would put huge amounts of effort into developing a PowerPoint, only to have senior executives interrupt throughout their presentation.
Those presentations also “obscured information,” Bezos noted.
“The great thing about English language memos is they have verbs and sentences and topic sentences and complete paragraphs — this is harder for the author [to put together], but it also forces the author to clarify their own thinking,” he explained. “It totally revolutionized the way we do meetings at Amazon and it’s been very, very helpful to us. I would recommend it to anyone.”