This is a story about Jeff Bezos, and the key thing he believes separates people who achieve their potential from those who only dream. (As a bonus, my new e-book, Jeff Bezos Regrets Nothing, is now available for free.)
It’s about a message that Bezos delivered in the last paragraphs of his final letter to Amazon shareholders, which was released Thursday, just a few months before Bezos steps down as CEO.
In case you read no further, I want to share upfront the single word that Bezos uses repeatedly in making his impassioned argument: “distinctiveness,” referring to what makes you or a company or anything on the planet, really, special — and against that, all the pressures of the world that are trying to get you to conform.
Honestly, there’s a lot more. He makes the case in life-or-death terms. Cutting it off there doesn’t do it justice.
In fact, Bezos did such an interesting job of grounding his argument in science, in biology, and in the lessons of an “extraordinary” (his word) 35-year-old book, that I find I’m still thinking about it two days later.
This key final section begins with the line: “I have one last thing of utmost importance I feel compelled to teach.”
That wording is about as effective as anything I’ve ever seen, in terms of telegraphing passion for what comes next. And what does come next, perhaps a bit intimidatingly, is a 215-word passage from a 1986 book called The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins, which Bezos calls “extraordinary.” Here’s part of it:
Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself — and that is what it is when it dies — the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment. …
Our bodies, for instance, are usually hotter than our surroundings, and in cold climates they have to work hard to maintain the differential. When we die the work stops, the temperature differential starts to disappear, and we end up the same temperature as our surroundings.
Dawkins is a retired professor at Oxford, and a well-known atheist thinker; his next book after this one was called The God Delusion. It’s OK if you don’t know his work. I’ll bet most people who read the letter haven’t.
But focus just on the short passage that Bezos includes, and strip it away from of any kind of theological debate. Bezos calls it a “fantastic” metaphor, one that’s “very relevant to Amazon,” and to “all companies and all institutions and to each of our individual lives too.”
That’s a heavy lift. To look through Bezos’s eyes here is to see everything in life as a constant struggle between:
- the “hard work,” and the “price” that has to be paid in order to maintain “distinctiveness” — again, he uses this word seven times in this final section, and
- the temptation to give in, relax, and succumb to the natural order of things — to become less special, or as Dawkins puts it, to “revert to a state of equilibrium.”
We all know that distinctiveness — originality — is valuable. We are all taught to “be yourself.” What I’m really asking you to do is to embrace and be realistic about how much energy it takes to maintain that distinctiveness.
The world wants you to be typical — in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.
I found myself thinking at this point of the poetry of Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Truly, Bezos’s passion is only a few degrees cooler, if that, urging people to ignore the “fairy tale” idea that if you’ll only “be yourself,” all your pain will stop.
Instead, he writes, it’s the exact opposite: “Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy or free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously.”
It’s a brutal truth, and Bezos has me thinking deeply about it. Maybe it makes sense to you, too. But how many people do you know who will never, ever take it to heart?