A couple of billionaires have jockeyed back and forth for the position of world's richest person, but lately Jeff Bezos has consistently held the title. How did he manage this feat? Clearly, he's smart and ferociously hard working, and was blessed with the right idea at the right time. But according to an executive who worked with Bezos for years, the real secret comes down to the same mindset that nearly had Bezos dragging his team off on a last-minute trip to Paris back in the early days of Amazon.
Dan Rose told the story of his near-miss with an unscheduled trip to the City of Light on Twitter recently. These days, Rose is a VC, but starting back in 1999, he put in a seven-year stint as director of business development at Amazon. As such, he got a chance to observe Bezos up close. What sets him apart, according to Rose, isn't his IQ or strategic genius. Instead, it is his "bias for action."
A near-miss with a midair destination change
The story takes places in 2004 when Rose was working with his team on developing the Kindle, Amazon's first hardware project. As part of the project, Bezos, Rose, and a few other executives were flying from Seattle to Chicago for a meeting with Motorola. While the team was cooped up on the plane, Bezos quizzed his employees about all aspects of the new project.
"Jeff was fired up from the start, posing strategy questions and brainstorming our approach to hardware, software, and content (my job)," Rose remembers. "When he asked about our strategy for getting book publishers on board with digital books, I mentioned we would need a DRM solution (like Apple had done with music). There was a small startup based in Paris that had already built DRM for e-books and we might want to acquire them."
Now, most of us when hearing about an opportunity like that might make a note of it for later consideration. Maybe we'd start digging up more information, or assign some research to an employee. Not Jeff Bezos.
"When Jeff heard this, he said, 'Let's fly straight to Paris and buy this company.' I thought he was kidding but he was dead serious," explains Rose.
Rose, together with another exec on board, had to talk Bezos down from an unscheduled midair change of destination to visit a company that had no idea they might be coming. Rose didn't end up on a different continent than originally scheduled in the end. But Amazon ultimately did acquire the company.
Default to action
All of this suggests Jeff Bezos is both an incredibly gung-ho guy and a very demanding boss. But, according to Rose, it's more than an entertaining anecdote. It's also a window on the brain of Bezos, and one that offers a hint of the mindset that made him so successful.
"He is a man of action. If there's a traffic jam on the highway, he'd rather take the side roads even if it takes him longer to reach his destination. He must always be moving. It's inspiring, and sometimes infuriating," another Amazon exec explained to Rose. This "bias for action" was later incorporated into Amazon's core values, but Rose believes it was one of Bezos's biggest strengths from the start.
He also believes that it's since become one of his own. "Whenever there's doubt about whether to act or wait, I always err on the side of taking action. There has to be good reason to wait, otherwise I want to get moving. I'd rather fail trying than succeed by not acting. This has served me well in my career, and I thank Jeff for it," Rose concludes.
Which isn't to advocate for recklessness. Bezos has written about how he classifies decisions as reversible and irreversible and takes his time making the latter kind. Nor is the lesson here that everyone can seize every opportunity the same way Bezos can. He was, after all, a successful Princeton-educated banker before he started Amazon. He's been blessed with more room to maneuver than most.
But, these caveats aside, the principle stands. The way to achieve a lot isn't to agonize and laboriously choose only the most promising opportunities to act on. Instead it's to just try a lot of things (Bezos isn't the only one to say so). Because the more you try, the more often you'll stumble onto excellence. A big part of success is just the perseverance to keep playing the odds.
Most of us will never be able to reroute our private planes from Chicago to Paris at a moment's notice, but we can take inspiration from this story to try a little harder to default to action and experimentation whenever an opportunity crosses our paths.