Academy of Achievement Logo

Jeff Bezos

Interview: Jeff Bezos
Founder and CEO, Amazon.com

May 4, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

Back to Jeff Bezos Interview

We understand you were born in Albuquerque. Did you grow up there?

Jeff Bezos: No, I left Albuquerque when I was about four. We moved to Houston, Texas.

What was it like for you growing up?

Jeff Bezos: Well, I had what I considered to be an idyllic childhood. I mean, I had two parents who loved me incredibly. I also had a tremendous amount of contact with my grandparents -- my mom's parents. In fact, I spent all my summers on my grandfather's ranch not far from where we're sitting right now, not far from San Antonio. And, I spent three months every year from the age of four to the age of 16 working on the ranch with my grandfather, which was just an incredible, incredible experience. Ranchers -- and anybody I think who works in rural areas -- they learn how to be very self-reliant, and whether they're farmers, whatever it is they're doing, they have to rely on themselves for a lot of things. My grandfather did sort of all of his own veterinary care on the cattle. We would, you know, repair the D-6 Caterpillar bulldozer when it broke, and it had gears this big, you know. We would build cranes to lift the gears out. This is just a very common sort of thing that folks in far away places do. I think it was a great experience.

How come you didn't grow up to be a cowboy?

Jeff Bezos: There's a little bit of that in me, I think. I remember the very first occupation I wanted to be -- when, I think, I was about six years old -- was an archeologist. I would like to point out this was before Indiana Jones. It's a point of pride. Then I wanted to be an astronaut. By the time I was in my high school years, I wanted to be a physicist and then by the time I got to college I wanted to be a computer programmer. That's actually what I studied in school and that's what has led me along the path I'm on.

Did you have heroes or role models when you were growing up?

Jeff Bezos: I did. I had some family role models. Certainly my grandfather was a serious role model for me. I think you learn different things from grandparents than you learn from parents. It's great. I would encourage anybody to try to spend time not only with their parents but with their grandparents. I had some historical role models that I looked at, too. Two people I always would read about were Thomas Edison and Walt Disney. Those were sort of my two biographical heroes.

Why Edison and Disney?

Jeff Bezos Interview Photo
Jeff Bezos: I've always been interested in inventors and invention. Edison, of course, for a little kid and probably for adults, too, is not only the symbol of that but the actual fact of that -- the incredible inventor. I've always felt that there's a certain kind of important pioneering that goes on from an inventor like Thomas Edison. Disney was a different sort of thing. He was also a real pioneer and an inventor, doing new things. It seemed to me that he had this incredible capability to create a vision that he could get a large number of people to share. Things that Disney invented, like Disneyland, the theme parks, they were such big visions that no single individual could ever pull them off, unlike a lot of the things that Edison worked on. Walt Disney really was able to get a big team of people working in a concerted direction.

What kind of a student were you as a kid?

Jeff Bezos: I was a very nerdy and good student. I was in the "goody goody" class of students and was working hard, studying. I always did my homework on time. I was a good student. I liked school.

Did you ever get into trouble?

Jeff Bezos: Very rarely. The things I got into trouble on were like I lost my library privileges one time -- which was really inconvenient for me -- for laughing too loudly in the library. I've had this laugh all my life. I have no idea where it came from. There was a period where my brother and sister wouldn't go see a movie with me. It was too embarrassing. I was probably unnaturally on the side of not getting in trouble. By the time I was in high school we did some prank type things, but they were the kind of pranks that at the end of the day the teachers actually secretly loved.

Are there any books you remember being important to you when you were growing up?

Jeff Bezos: At different ages, lots of different books.

I remember in fourth grade we had this wonderful contest which was -- the people in the class, whoever -- there was some prize -- I can't even remember what it was -- whoever could read the most Newbery Award winners in a year and I read through -- I didn't end up winning. You know, I think I read like 30 Newbery Award winners that year, but somebody else read more. The standout there is the old classic that I think so many people have read and enjoyed, A Wrinkle in Time, and I just remember loving that book. I was always a big fan of science fiction, even from when I was, you know, in elementary school reading various things and loved, of course, The Hobbit and Tolkien's trilogy that follows on from that. In this little town where my grandfather lived -- in the summers, where I spent my time in the summer -- had a tiny little Andrew Carnegie-style library where all the books had been donated from the local citizens. And I found --I mean this was a very small library, smaller than the room that we're sitting in now -- but it had an extensive science fiction collection because it just so happened one of the residents of this 3,000-person town had been a science fiction fan, and donated their whole collection. And that started a love affair for me with people like Heinlein and Asimov and all the well-known science fiction authors that persists to this day.

What about teachers? Were there any teachers you remember that had an influence on you?

Jeff Bezos Interview Photo
Jeff Bezos: Oh, tons of teachers! My math teacher in fourth or fifth grade, Mrs. McInerney, she had a big influence on me. My calculus teacher in high school, Mr. Bohr, he had a big influence on me, Ms. Del Champs, who taught chemistry in high school, Ms. Ruehl, who taught physics. I really have been blessed with conscientious, hard-working, super smart teachers. I only got to go through school once so I don't know, but I have a feeling I was lucky. I know there are a lot of hard-working teachers out there but I seem to have had more than my fair share.

Is it possible to say what these teachers did for you?

Jeff Bezos: I always wanted to please. Teachers, who are really good create that environment where you can be very satisfied by the process of learning. If you do something and you find it a very satisfying experience then you want to do more of it. The great teachers somehow convey in their very attitude and their words and their actions and everything they do that this is an important thing you're learning. You end up wanting to do more of it and more of it and more of it. That's a real talent some people have to convey the importance of that and to reflect it back to the students.

When you weren't studying, what kinds of things did you like to do?

Jeff Bezos: I was very difficult to punish for my parents because they would send me to my room, and I was always happy to go to my room because I would just read. "You're grounded and you have to stay in your room." That was always fine with me. I was a big reader. I remember playing lots of games in elementary school like kick-the-can, tag, all the outdoor games. I did all those things. I had a very normal childhood -- except for my ranch experience, which I think is a very unusual experience, and a great one to have had -- I think my experience as a kid was a very normal one.

How did you get along with your siblings?

Jeff Bezos: Pretty well. I was five and six years older than them. Now that I'm 37 years old, it's like we're the same generation. When I was 15, and they were 10 and 9, I had no time for them whatsoever. They were the pesky younger siblings that I was trying to shake off and keep out of my room.

We've read about your inventiveness as a kid with your Radio Shack electronics kit and an alarm that you set up in your room.

Jeff Bezos: I was constantly booby-trapping the house with various kinds of alarms and some of them were not just audible sounds, but actually like physical booby-traps. I think I occasionally worried my parents that they were going to open the door one day and have 30 pounds of nails drop on their head or something. Our garage was basically science fair central, and my mom is a saint, because she would drive me to Radio Shack multiple times a day to the point where she would finally say, "Okay. Look. Will you please get your parts list straight before we go? I can't handle more than one trip to Radio Shack per day." So, there was a lot of that kind of stuff going on in our house.

All of this eventually led you to Princeton?

Jeff Bezos: Yeah. So, I went to Princeton primarily because I wanted to study physics, and it's such a fantastic place to study physics. Things went fairly well until I got to quantum mechanics and there were about 30 people in the class by that point and it was so hard for me. I just remember there was a point in this where I realized I'm never going to be a great physicist. There were three or four people in the class whose brains were so clearly wired differently to process these highly abstract concepts, so much more. I was doing well in terms of the grades I was getting, but for me it was laborious, hard work. And, for some of these truly gifted folks -- it was awe-inspiring for me to watch them because in a very easy, almost casual way, they could absorb concepts and solve problems that I would work 12 hours on, and it was a wonderful thing to behold. At the same time, I had been studying computer science, and was really finding that that was something I was drawn toward. I was drawn to that more and more and that turned out to be a great thing. So I found -- one of the great things Princeton taught me is that I'm not smart enough to be a physicist.

What drew you to computer science? What was it about computer science?

Jeff Bezos: I was very, very lucky because in fourth grade -- which for me would have been around 1974 -- I had access to a mainframe computer. There were no personal computers in 1974, and there was a company in Houston that had loaned excess mainframe computer time to this little elementary school. And we had a teletype that was connected by an old acoustic modem. You literally dialed a regular phone and picked up the handset and put it in this little cradle. And nobody -- none of the teachers knew how to operate this computer, nobody did. But, there was a stack of manuals and me and a couple of other kids stayed after class and learned how to program this thing, and that worked well for maybe about a week. And then, we learned that the mainframe programmers in some central location somewhere in Houston had already programmed this computer to play Star Trek. And, from that day forward all we did was play Star Trek.

That is actually something I should have mentioned.

I used a large portion of my elementary school free time hours not only watching Star Trek -- the original of course -- but also playing Star Trek. And everybody wanted to be -- all of my friends -- we all wanted to be Spock, and if you couldn't be Spock then you would be Captain Kirk. And, if you couldn't be Captain Kirk, then it started to separate. People wanted to be different. Some people wanted to be Bones. I never wanted to be Bones. I would take as my third choice -- if I couldn't get Spock or Kirk -- I would take the computer. The computer was fun to play, because people would ask you questions, and they'd say, "Computer?" And you'd say, "Working."

Why were you drawn to computer science?

Jeff Bezos: I don't know. I think it's always hard to know why you're drawn to a particular thing. I think part of it is if you have a facility with that thing, of course it's satisfying to do it and so in a way that's self-reinforcing. And, certainly I always had a facility with computers. I always got along well with them and they're such extraordinary tools. You can teach them to do things and then they actually do them. It's kind of an incredible tool that we've built here in the 20th Century. That was a love affair that really did start in the fourth grade, and by the time I got to high school -- I think when I was in 11th grade I got an Apple II Plus -- and continued fooling around with computers, and then by the time I got to Princeton I was taking all the computer classes, and actually not just learning how to hack, but learning about algorithms and some of the mathematics behind computer science, and it's fascinating. It's really a very involving and fun subject.

What were your intentions when you left Princeton? What did you set out to do?

Jeff Bezos: I toyed with the idea of starting a company and even talked to a couple of friends about starting a company, and ultimately decided that it would be smarter to wait and learn a little bit more about business and the way the world works. You know, one of the things that it's very hard to believe when you're 22 or 23 years old is that you don't already know everything. It turns out -- people learn more and more as they get older -- that you seem to learn, you seem to realize that you know less and less every year that goes by. I can only imagine that by the time I'm 70 I will realize I know nothing. So that was, I think, a very good decision to not do that. I went to work for a start-up company, but one in New York City that was building a network for helping brokerage firms clear trades. It is kind of an obscure thing, and it's not very interesting to go into, but it used my technical skills, and it was very fun work, and I loved the people I was working with. From then on, I started working at the intersection of computers and finance, and stayed on Wall Street for a long time, ultimately worked for a company that did this thing called quantitative hedge fund trading. What we did was we programmed the computers and then the computers made stock trades, and that was very interesting too. And that was where I was working when I came across the fact that the web was growing at 2,300 percent a year, and that's what led to the forming of Amazon.com.

That was the defining moment, the flash of inspiration?

Jeff Bezos: The wake up call was finding this startling statistic that web usage in the spring of 1994 was growing at 2,300 percent a year. You know, things just don't grow that fast. It's highly unusual, and that started me about thinking, "What kind of business plan might make sense in the context of that growth?"

You can't have been the only one to see that growth statistic.

Jeff Bezos: No. In fact, not only was I not the only one, but a lot of people saw it much earlier.

Not everyone has been able to realize that potential the way you have. What do you think enabled you to see what you saw and to act on it?

Jeff Bezos: I think there are a couple of things. One of the things everybody should realize is that any time a start-up company turns into a substantial company over the years, there was a lot of luck involved. There are a lot of entrepreneurs. There are a lot of people who are very smart, very hardworking, very few ever have the planetary alignment that leads to a tiny little company growing into something substantial. So that requires not only a lot of planning, a lot of hard work, a big team of people who are all dedicated, but it also requires that not only the planets align, but that you get a few galaxies in there aligning, too. That's certainly what happened to us.

Our timing was good, our choice of product categories -- books -- was a very good choice. And we did a lot of analysis on that to pick that category as the first best category for E-commerce online, but there were no guarantees that that was a good category. At the time we launched this business it wasn't even crystal clear that the technology would improve fast enough that ordinary people -- non-computer people -- would even want to bother with this technology. So, that was good luck.

Here you were sitting in New York City in a very good job, a lucrative position with a future. You go home and you say to your wife you want to throw all that over and get in the car and go to Seattle. What possessed you to do that? What was her reaction? What is the role of risk taking?

Jeff Bezos: I went to my boss and said to him, "You know, I'm going to go do this crazy thing and I'm going to start this company selling books online." This was something that I had already been talking to him about in a sort of more general context, but then he said, "Let's go on a walk." And, we went on a two hour walk in Central Park in New York City and the conclusion of that was this. He said, "You know, this actually sounds like a really good idea to me, but it sounds like it would be a better idea for somebody who didn't already have a good job." He convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. So, I went away and was trying to find the right framework in which to make that kind of big decision. I had already talked to my wife about this, and she was very supportive and said, "Look, you know you can count me in 100 percent, whatever you want to do." It's true she had married this fairly stable guy in a stable career path, and now he wanted to go do this crazy thing, but she was 100 percent supportive. So, it really was a decision that I had to make for myself, and the framework I found which made the decision incredibly easy was what I called -- which only a nerd would call -- a "regret minimization framework." So, I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, "Okay, now I'm looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have." I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision. And, I think that's very good. If you can project yourself out to age 80 and sort of think, "What will I think at that time?" it gets you away from some of the daily pieces of confusion. You know, I left this Wall Street firm in the middle of the year. When you do that, you walk away from your annual bonus. That's the kind of thing that in the short-term can confuse you, but if you think about the long-term then you can really make good life decisions that you won't regret later.

Most regrets, by the way, are acts of omission and not commission. If you do bad things, if you go murder somebody, that would be bad and that would be an act of commission that you would regret. But most everyday, ordinary non-murderers, when they're 80 years old, their big regrets are omissions.

When you showed up in Seattle, you had left your job, you'd left any regrets you might have behind you. How do you get something like Amazon.com started? What did you have to do?

Jeff Bezos: That blank sheet of paper stage is one of the hardest stages, and one of the reasons it's hard is because at that stage there's nobody counting on you but yourself. Today it's easy because we've got millions of customers counting on us, and thousands of investors counting on us, and thousands of employees all counting on each other. In that beginning stage it's really just you, and you can quit any time. Nobody is going to care, so you set about doing the simple things first.

So, you want to start a company. Well, the first thing you do is you should write a business plan, and so I did that. I wrote about a 30-page business plan. I wrote a first draft. In fact, I wrote the first draft on the car trip from the East Coast to the West Coast. And, that is very helpful. You know the business plan won't survive its first encounters with reality. It will always be different. The reality will never be the plan, but the discipline of writing the plan forces you to think through some of the issues and to get sort of mentally comfortable in the space. Then you start to understand, if you push on this knob this will move over here and so on. So, that's the first step.

We tried to get a lot of the little housekeeping details done even before we arrived in Seattle. I called a friend who lived in Seattle and asked if he could recommend an attorney. He recommended his divorce lawyer, but that's who we used. It was a general practitioner, a sort of small sole practitioner. He incorporated the company. He asked me on the cell phone what name would you like the company incorporated under. I said, "Cadabra, as in abra cadabra." And he said, "Cadaver?" I knew then that was not going to be a good name. We went ahead and incorporated under that name. We changed it about three months later.

I stopped in San Francisco and interviewed vice presidents of engineering, because that was going to be an important long lead time item. We needed to build the technology that would run the store, and found the person who turned out to be the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com on that trip. A guy named Shel Kaphan, who built all of our early systems. He had help from others, but he was the architect, he engineered them, and just did a fantastic job. So writing the business plan, the initial hiring, getting the company incorporated, all these are simple, almost pedestrian tasks, but that's how you start, one step at a time.

Were investors knocking at your door?

Jeff Bezos: Oh no.

The first initial start-up capital for Amazon.com came primarily from my parents, and they invested a large fraction of their life savings in what became Amazon.com. And you know, that was a very bold and trusting thing for them to do because they didn't know. My dad's first question was, "What's the Internet?" Okay. So he wasn't making a bet on this company or this concept. He was making a bet on his son, as was my mother. So, I told them that I thought there was a 70 percent chance that they would lose their whole investment, which was a few hundred thousand dollars, and they did it anyway. And, you know, I thought I was giving myself triple the normal odds, because really, if you look at the odds of a start-up company succeeding at all, it's only about ten percent. Here I was, giving myself a 30 percent chance.

Start up companies need early planetary alignment.

There are so many things that can go wrong. When we launched that store in July of 1995, we were shocked at the customer response. Literally in the first 30 days we had orders from all 50 states and 45 different countries, and we were woefully unprepared from an operational point of view to handle that kind of volume. In fact, we quickly expanded. We talked to our landlord and we expanded into a 2,000 square foot basement warehouse space that had six-foot ceilings. One of our ten employees was six-two; he went around like this the whole time. We were doing our day jobs, which might have been computer programming -- all the different things that ten people will do in a tiny start-up company. And then we would spend all afternoon into the wee hours of the morning packing up the orders and shipping them out. I would drive these things to UPS so we could get the last one, and we would wait till the last second. I'd get to UPS and I would sort of bang on the glass door that was closed. They would always take pity on me and sort of open up and let us ship things late. We had so many orders that we weren't ready for, that we had no real organization in our distribution center at all. In fact, we were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor. I remember, just to show you how stupid I can be -- my only defense is that it was late. We were packing these things, everybody in the company and I had this brainstorm as I said to the person next to me, "This packing is killing me! My back hurts, this is killing my knees on this hard cement floor" and this person said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." And I said, "You know what we need?" My brilliant insight. "We need knee pads!'" I was very serious, and this person looked at me like I was the stupidest person they'd ever seen. I'm working for this person? This is great. "What we need is packing tables."

I looked this person and I thought that was the smartest idea I had ever heard. The next day we got packing tables and I think we doubled our productivity. That early stage, by the way of Amazon.com, when we were so unprepared, is probably one of the luckiest things that ever happened to us, because it formed a culture of customer service in every department of the company. Every single person in the company because we had to work with our hands so close to the customers, making sure those orders went out really set up a culture that served us well, and that is our goal, to be earth's most customer-centric company. In a second round of fund-raising, about a year later or so, we raised a million dollars and I had to talk to about 60 different people. These were angel investors. Venture capitalists were totally uninterested. It wasn't like what people think of today.

In 1998 and 1999 you could raise $60 million for an Internet idea without a business plan with a single phone call. It was a very different era, but back in 1995 it was very difficult to raise money. And, by the way, it wasn't more difficult than it had been for the previous 20 years to raise money, it just was sort of normally hard. It's supposed to be hard to raise a million dollars. So, with a lot of hard work we raised that million dollars from about 20 different angel investors who invested about $50,000 each, and that was the original money that really funded Amazon.com.

Did you ever have any self-doubts, fear of failure?

Jeff Bezos: In a strange way, no. Because remember...

Once you are looking at the odds in a realistic way -- it's very important for entrepreneurs to be realistic -- and so if you believe on that first day while you're writing the business plan that there's a 70 percent chance that the whole thing will fail, then that kind of relieves the pressure of self-doubt. It's sort of like, I don't have any doubt about whether we're going to fail. That's the likely outcome. It just is, and to pretend that it's not will lead you to do strange and unnatural things. So, what you do with those early investment dollars -- if you have $300,000 and then you have a million dollars -- what you do with those early precious capital resources is you go about systematically trying to eliminate risk. So, you pick whatever you think the biggest problems are, and you try to eliminate them one at a time. That's how small companies get a little bit bigger, and then a little bit bigger, and a little bit bigger, until finally, at a certain stage, you reach a transition where the company has more control over its future destiny.

When a company is very tiny it needs a tremendous amount of not only hard work but, as we talked about earlier, luck. As a company gets bigger it starts to become a little more stable. At a certain point in time the company has a much bigger influence over its future outcome and it needs a lot less luck and instead it needs the hard work. At that point there's a little bit more pressure, because if you fail you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Jeff Bezos Interview Photo
You succeeded. You became a phenomenon. Suddenly you're talking about a lot of money, a lot of investors, a lot of responsibility, and things don't always go smoothly.

Jeff Bezos: That's for sure. Things never go smoothly.

How do you deal with that kind of pressure you must have felt during the past year?

Jeff Bezos: It's very interesting, because the Internet in general and Amazon.com in particular, is still Chapter One. You're asking me about my story, and it's still the very beginning. There's still a lot of technology to be built, a lot of innovations for customers to be built, and the financial side of the story is still playing itself out in real time. There's a lot of visibility on the Internet, and there has been for the last couple of years. For the first four years of the company, we worked in relative obscurity. We always had lots of supporters and we always had lots of skeptics, and that's still the same today. It's just that the level of visibility is so much higher. If you look at the six years that we've been doing business, in exactly one of those six years we were not the underdog. That was 1999 and that was the weird year for us. Now it's much more normal. It's more what we're used to.

Do you have any doubts about the future of Amazon.com?

Jeff Bezos: We haven't built a lasting company yet.

We still have a tremendous amount of hard work ahead of us, but we have all the assets in place now. We have eliminated the necessity for the luck that a start-up company requires, and now our future is in our own hands as a team and as a company, and we have so many smart people. We have so many customers who treat us so well, and we have the right kind of culture that obsesses over the customer. If there's one reason we have done better than most of our peers in the Internet space over the last six years, it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience, and that really does matter, I think, in any business. It certainly matters online, where word of mouth is so very, very powerful. You know, if you make a customer unhappy they won't tell five friends, they'll tell 5,000 friends. So, we are at a point now where we have all of the things we need to build an important and lasting company, and if we don't, it will be shame on us.

How do you deal with stress, with pressure, with setbacks, with disappointments?

Jeff Bezos: In my particular case, I laugh a lot.

Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. So, if I find that some particular thing is causing me to have stress, that's a warning flag for me. What it means is there's something that I haven't completely identified perhaps in my conscious mind that is bothering me, and I haven't yet taken any action on it. I find as soon as I identify it, and make the first phone call, or send off the first e-mail message, or whatever it is that we're going to do to start to address that situation -- even if it's not solved -- the mere fact that we're addressing it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it. So, stress comes from ignoring things that you shouldn't be ignoring, I think, in large part. So, stress doesn't come -- people get stress wrong all the time in my opinion. Stress doesn't come from hard work, for example. You know, you can be working incredibly hard and loving it, and, likewise, you can be out of work and incredibly stressed over that. And, likewise, if you use that as an analogy for what I was just talking about, if you're out of work but you're going through a disciplined approach, a series of job interviews and so on, and working to remedy that situation, you are going to be a lot less stressed than if you're just worrying about it and doing nothing.

What about dealing with success? Can that be a problem?

Jeff Bezos: I don't know if this is true for everybody but I suspect it is. At a certain age the basic things about people are largely set. I'm a lottery winner of a certain kind, and I suspect if you were to survey lottery winners you would find that the core things about them don't really change because they won the lottery. People are always very curious about that. How does it fundamentally change a person when they win a lottery? I don't think it does very much.

How do you explain to someone who has no idea what you do, why you do it? Why do you do what you're doing for a living? What gives you the greatest sense of satisfaction about it?

Jeff Bezos: I think one thing I find very motivating -- and I think this is probably a very common form of motivation or cause of motivation is, I love people counting on me, and so, you know, today it's so easy to be motivated, because we have millions of customers counting on us at Amazon.com. We've got thousands of investors counting on us. And, we're a team of thousands of employees all counting on each other. That's fun.

That's also pressure, isn't it?

Jeff Bezos: I don't think so. Maybe for some people it would be. Fortunately, there are a lot of different people motivated by a lot of different things. My wife is working on a novel, and that's about as opposite as you could get in some ways, because when you're working on a novel you are really counting on yourself. If you don't finish that novel, there aren't a whole bunch of people counting on you. To me, that would be incredibly stressful, because the amount of self-discipline required to have the follow through to do that, even though nobody will say a single negative word if you just give up, that's hard if you ask me. I have a lot of respect for novelists who are able to do that.

In your life have you ever considered giving up something you were doing?

Jeff Bezos Interview Photo
Jeff Bezos: Well, I gave up trying to be a great physicist and I'll tell you, that was very difficult for me. I mean, it's something that I had my sights set on for a long time, and it was a harsh realization that there were these awe-inspiring people whose brains were just wired differently. So, yeah, sure.

Looking ahead, is there some idea or problem or challenge that interests you?

Jeff Bezos: On a personal level, very interested in exploration of space. Since I was a little kid I have always been interested. When I was at Princeton I was president of SEDS, which stands for Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. If I ever get the chance I'd like to go investigate the moon and Mars and tool around our solar system a little bit. I don't know if I'll ever get that chance. It's technically a very hard problem.

If a young person came to you for advice, "How do I make the most out of my life?" what would you say to them?

Jeff Bezos: Do something you're very passionate about, and don't try to chase what is kind of the 'hot passion' of the day. I think we actually saw this. I think you see it all over the place in many different contexts, but I think we saw it in the Internet world quite a bit, where, at sort of the peak of the Internet mania in -- say 1999 -- you found people who were very passionate of something, and they kind of left that job and decided, "I'm going to do something on the Internet because it's almost like the 1849 Gold Rush in a way." I mean, you find that people -- if you go back and study the history of the 1949 Gold Rush you find that, at that time, everybody who was within shouting distance of California was -- you know, they might have been a doctor, but they quit being a doctor and they started panning for gold, and that almost never works. And, even if it does work, according to some metric, financial success, or whatever it might be, I suspect it leaves you ultimately unsatisfied. So, you really need to be very clear with yourself. And I think one of the best ways to do that is this notion of projecting yourself forward to age 80, looking back on your life, and trying to make sure you've minimized the number of regrets you have. That works for career decisions. It works for family decisions. I have a 14-month old son, and it's very easy for me to -- if I think about myself when I'm 80, I know I want to watch that little guy grow up, and so it's -- I don't want to be 80 and think, "Shoot! You know, I missed that whole thing, and I don't have the kind of relationship with my son that I wished I had," and so on and so on.

Another thing that I would recommend to people is that they always take a long-term point of view. I think this is something about which there's a lot of controversy. A lot of people -- and I'm just not one of them -- believe that you should live for the now. I think what you do is think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you're planning for that in a way that's going to leave you ultimately satisfied. This is the way it works for me. There are a lot of paths to satisfaction and you need to find one that works for you.

What kind of responsibility goes along with the kind of success you've had?

Jeff Bezos: If you are a lottery winner, as I am, then one of the things that you get a chance to do at some point in your life is to be a philanthropist and so, I didn't grow up hoping, "Boy! Maybe I'll be a philanthropist one day!" That wasn't ever on my list of archeologist, astronaut, those things I wanted to be. Physicist. I think in large part because I never expected to have the means to be a philanthropist, but I think that if you win a lottery of this kind of size, that one of the things that, over time, you have an obligation to do, is to think about the ways that that wealth can be used in a highly leveraged way. I also think, by the way, it's really easy to give away money in highly unleveraged ways where it's just a waste of money and I suspect that it takes as much time, energy, focus and hard work to effectively give away money as it does to get it in the first place.

What's important to you and why?

Jeff Bezos: I think one of the things that's most important to me is one of the notions that the United States was founded on, and that is liberty. It's a very difficult thing. There's lots of very interesting stuff to think about in this regard, and it just so happens that a free market economy, sort of a capitalist system, has a lot of liberty mixed in with it.

We all get to decide how we're going to go about making our own living and so on and so on. That happens to also be a very effective way of deploying an economy so that you get an economy which mostly makes sense. You know, things mysteriously -- because of that invisible hand -- tend to work out. I remember there was a time -- I may have these statistics slightly wrong -- a few years ago there was a heat wave in the South that killed three percent of chickens, and I think egg prices doubled because there were three percent fewer chickens. Well, that means that the number of chickens is roughly right, even though there's nobody deciding how many chickens there should be. So, that is a very interesting fact, I think, that a free market economy -- which by necessity involves a lot of liberty -- just happens to work well in terms of allocating resources. But, imagine a different world. Imagine a world where some incredibly artificially intelligent computer could actually do a better job than the invisible hand of allocating resources, and were to say, "There shouldn't be this many chickens, there should be this many chickens," just a few more or a few less. Well, that might even lead to more aggregate wealth. So, it might be a society that if you give up liberty, everybody could be a little wealthier. Now, the question that I would pose is, if that turned out to be the world, "Is that a good trade?" Personally, I don't think so. Personally I think it would be a terrible trade. And, I sometimes worry about that, because I think it's a coincidence that liberty tends to do such a good job of creating an economy that functions well.

Do you have any concerns about what role the computer may play in our lives in the years ahead?

Jeff Bezos: Not the computer per se, but I do often have concerns about the role that technology more generally may play in the years ahead.

You know, if you look over long periods of time, look over hundreds of years, and look at the average sort of life cycle of a new technology, what you find is that it's getting compressed and compressed and compressed, so the rate of change is getting faster and faster. Every decade that goes by, there's more important discoveries per unit time than there were in the previous decade. And, a lot of these discoveries tend to have two uses. I mean, technologies tend to be agnostic with respect to whether they can be used for good or used for evil. I think that over the next 50 years we are going to face a lot of very tough decisions as a society in how we make sure that we are harnessing those technologies for good purposes.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Jeff Bezos: I think I already answered it, because I think the American Dream is about liberty. But I'll add one other thing to what I said earlier. Liberty, giving people the freedom to do what they want -- as long as they're not hurting somebody else -- is super important. I think it's the core essence of the American Dream. I think at times we as a people get confused about it.

I think people should carefully reread the first part of the Declaration of Independence, because I think sometimes we as a society start to get confused and think that we have a right to happiness, but if you read the Declaration of Independence, it talks about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Nobody has a right to happiness. You should have a right to pursue it, and I think the core of that is liberty.

Thank you very much.

It has been my pleasure.




This page last revised on Nov 26, 2013 01:54 EDT