Here are Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ tips about inspiration, work-life balance, and how to be an inventor. Oh, and how it felt getting doused with champagne at his rocket landing. The world’s richest person displayed an unprecedented level of candor during an interview at invite-only getaway Summit Series in Los Angeles this weekend.
Why did Jeff get so vulnerable? Because his little brother Mark Bezos was the interviewer. Set against a backdrop of old Bezos family photos at the opulent Orpheum Theater, Jeff revealed his personal philosophy.
The final line of Jeff’s high school Valedictorian speech: “Space, the final frontier. Meet me there” he said, turning Star Trek’s motto into a call to action.
Jeff laughs about the “buff Bezos” meme the blew up the Internet earlier this year
How he learned resourcefulness: Jeff spent summer from age four to sixteen on an isolated farm owned by his grandfather he called “Pop”. Without access to outside help, Pop had to rely on himself. Jeff said. Pop went as far as making his own needles and doing his own veterinary work like suturing cattle. Jeff spent a summer repairing an old piece of Caterpillar construction equipment Pop had bought for $5000 — a huge discount because it was entirely broken. When the giant mail-order gears for the repair arrived, they were too heavy to move…so Pop built his own miniature crane to lift them. “He would take on major projects he didn’t know how to do, and then he did them” says Jeff.
On practicing resilience: Jeff’s Pop once tore the top of his thumb off. He had tried to jump out of his moving truck and unlatch the farm’s gate before the car slid through, but the car slammed into the gate that nearly took off Pop’s finger, which was hanging on by a thread. He was so mad that he tore the top of the thumb off and threw it in the brush, then drove himself to the hospital. Rather than have his thumb stitched to his side to regrow, Pop just had the docs do a quicker skin graft from his butt. Jeff distinctly remembers how from then on “his thumb grew butt hair”. But rather than complain, Pop would just shave his thumb along with his face. “Each time you have a set back, you’re using resilience and resourcefulness, and inventing your way out of a box” says Jeff.
Mark and Jeff Bezos speak at Summit in Los Angeles. Image credit: Michael Drummond
On raising kids: Jeff and his wife let their kids use sharp knives since they were four and soon had them wielding power tools, because if they hurt themselves, they’d learn. Jeff says his wife’s perspective is “I’d much rather have a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid.”
On choosing a romantic partner: When Jeff decided he was ready to settle down, his friends set him up on tons of blind dates. He eventually knew he’d found his wife when he met someone truly resourceful. “I wanted a woman who could get me out of a third-world prison” Jeff said.
How he knew to leave his job and start Amazon: Jeff had a been working in finance software engineering on Wall Street. But in 1994, he told his boss he wanted to start an Internet book store. His boss told him it was a pretty good idea but that it was “a better idea for someone who didn’t have a good job.” Jeff took a few days, and decided “the best way to think about it was to project my life forward to age 80” and make the decision that “minimized my regrets. You don’t want to be cataloguing your regrets.” And while you might feel remorse for things you did wrong, he said more often regrets stem from the “path not taken” like loving someone but never telling them. “Then it was immediately obvious” that he should leave to start Amazon. “If it failed, I would be very proud when I was 80 that I tried.”
A teenaged Jeff Bezos dressed as a vegetable for Halloween
What he’d be doing if he wasn’t ‘Jeff Bezos’: “My best guess is I’d be a very happy software engineer” following his interest in machine learning and AI. But he admits “I have this fantasy of being a bartender. I pride myself on my craft cocktails.” But be warned, he says he’s extremely slow. His fantasy bar would have a sign saying “do you want it good or do you want it fast?”
On his personal connection to the news and owning the Washington Post: Jeff says “Pop obsessively watched the Watergate hearings” in 1973. That might have subconsciously influenced how high he values investigative journalism, which he expressed by acquiring the Washington Post in 2013.
Mark and Jeff Bezos speak at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater at Summit. Image credit: Michael Drummond
On the need for space travel and his rocket company Blue Origin: “We have to go to space to save earth” Jeff says, noting “we kind of have to hurry.” Still, he believes Plan A and Plan B both need to be protecting the environment of Earth to keep it livable. “We’ve sent robotic probes to every planet in our solar system. This one is the best. It’s not even close.”
On space entrepreneurship: The key to opening the opportunities of space is reducing the price of getting objects out of Earth’s gravity. “We have to lower the cost of admission so thousands of entrepreneurs can have startups in space, like we saw with the Internet”, noting how web companies exploded in popularity as infrastructure costs came down.
Jeff Bezos working on Pop’s farm as a kid
On phone addiction and multi-tasking: Mark says his brother Jeff is surprisingly present, and rarely distracted by his phone. Jeff explains that “When I have dinner with friends or family, I like to be doing whatever I’m doing. I don’t like to multi-task. If I’m reading my email I want to be reading my email” with his full attention and energy. Jeff exhibited this resistance to multi-tasking early in life. At Montessori school, he’d refuse to move on to the next task as the day progressed, so the teacher would literally pick up him and his chair and move him to the next project. Instead of constantly switching back and forth, Jeff says he sequentially focuses. “I multi-task serially.”
On how to establish work-life balance: “I like the phrase ‘work-life harmony’”, Jeff says. “Balance implies there’s a strict trade-off.” If he feels like he’s adding value and is a productive member of a team at work, “it makes me better at home. If I’m happy at home, it makes me a better employee, a better boss.” Don’t be someone who drains energy out of their co-workers or family. He believes it’s not just about how you allocate hours in the day, but whether you have enough energy to participate with enthusiasm.
Jeff (center) with his crew of obviously very cool friends, dressing up for Halloween
On how to be an inventor: Because the world is so complicated, you have to be a “domain expert” to find solutions to problems. “But the danger is that once you’re a domain expert, you can be trapped by that knowledge.” You have to approach things with childlike curiosity. Inventors are the experts with beginners minds, he says.
On what defines you: “We all get to choose our life stories. It’s our choices that define us, not our gifts. You can only be proud of your choices” Jeff says. You either choose a life of “ease and comfort”, or of “service and adventure”, and when you’re 80, you’ll be more proud of the latter.
And finally, his most ridiculous quote of the talk: When discussing the tarmac celebration pictured up top after the successful landing of his Blue Origin New Shepard reusable rocket, Jeff said “My cowboy hat still has champagne stains. The best kind of stains.”