Photo Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Jeff Bezos School of Long-Term Thinking

If you want to know about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ obsession with longevity, all you have to do is read up about his side projects. You could check out his super-secretive aerospace company, Blue Origin. Or you could look in the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range in Texas, where Bezos is carving out a hole in one of the mountainsides to build a 10,000-year clock using $42 million of his own money.

Why focus 10,000 years into the future? The answer lies in Bezos’ letter to Amazon shareholders from 1997 when the company went public, a manifesto of sorts about the benefits and approaches to long term thinking.

The 1997 letter’s main point: we can’t realize our potential as people or as companies unless we plan for the long term. Every subsequent year Bezos has ended shareholder letters by attaching the original 1997 essay with a reminder of the importance of thinking long term. And every year, he is proven right.

The company that started out as a few guys in a garage has now revolutionized the way we buy everything from books to toys to clothes. Amazon is now one of the 100-largest companies in America, mostly thanks to bold long term plays like the Amazon Kindle.

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people,” Bezos told Wired in 2011. “But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”

We can’t realize our potential as people or as companies unless we plan for the long term.

In a nod to Bezos’ obsession with long-term thinking, 99U has combed through a dozen interviews and profiles on the CEO and pulled out a handful of his day-to-day habits that can help you keep an eye on the long term, just like Bezos.

(Disclosure: Bezos is an investor in Behance.)

1. Write out new ideas.

At Amazon, senior executive meetings don’t start out with conference calls or PowerPoint presentations, they start out with reading. Lot’s of it. From a Fortune profile:

Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

As Ben Casnocha points out, when you’re speaking it’s easy for audiences to fill in the gaps in your ideas and for you to gloss over the details. By demanding his team to write everything out, it makes them consider all aspects of an idea to make it more durable for years to come.

2. Incentivize team members for the long term: make them owners.

Compared to the lavish salaries and perks of some other established Silicon Valley tech companies, Amazon likes to run lean. The company doesn’t give its employees free snacks, keeps salaries low, and even once (allegedly) preferred to use doors as desks instead of expensive modern furniture. But that doesn’t mean employees aren’t well compensated.

Amazon prefers to reward employees with stock options rather than cash. Bezos explains his logic in the 1997 letter: “We know our success will be largely affected by our ability to attract and retain a motivated employee base, each of whom must think like, and therefore must actually be, an owner.”

3. Follow the “two pizza rule.”

Bezos believes in avoiding complacency at all costs, especially when reinforced by groupthink. From a Wall Street Journal profile:

One former executive recalled that, at an offsite retreat where some managers suggested that employees should start communicating more with each other, Mr. Bezos stood up and declared, “No, communication is terrible!” He wanted a decentralized, even disorganized company where independent ideas would prevail over groupthink.

His antidote? Make his teams as small as possible while throttling communication where appropriate. Bezos said he believed in “two pizza teams”: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

4. Dedicate time to think about the future.

A 1999 Wired profile of Bezos revealed that he purposefully keeps two unstructured days a week on his calendar so he could allow his mind to wander and generate new ideas.  Sometimes he just surfed the web, other times he set up his own meetings.

5. Routinely “check in” on long-term goals.

The same Wired profile reported that Bezos meets with his assistant every quarter to assess his progress on 12 pre-selected initiatives. Mainly, he wants to assure himself that he is spending adequate time on each one by reviewing the past three months of his calendar. The exercise enables him to “check in” to make sure he stays true to his long-term goals and while not getting distracted by new and fleeting ideas.

6. Work backwards.

As Amazon jumps from books to music to web hosting to content creation, its endeavors may seem random, but are all the result of working backwards from a common goal of customer satisfaction. This is opposed to a “skills-forward” approach where people – and companies – let what they are good at determine next steps.

From Bezos’ 2008 shareholder letter:

Eventually the existing skills will become outmoded. Working backwards … demands that we acquire new competencies and exercise new muscles, never mind how uncomfortable and awkward-feeling those first steps might be.

Bezos even applies this logic to his personal life. When he has to make big decisions he often works backwards and thinks about how he’ll feel about the choice when he is 80. As he was weighing whether to quit his day job to start Amazon, he told Wired that potential regret made him say yes.

“Am I going to regret leaving Wall Street? No. Will I regret missing the beginning of the Internet? Yes.”

How about you?

What have you done to keep your eye focused on the long term?

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
load comments (41)
  • yogi_3333

    “Never have anything in your life you’re not prepared to walk away from in 60 seconds.” Robert DeNiro in “Heat”

  • Marty Duren

    And he would up shot dead at the airport.

  • Kennett Kwok

    He has two days unstructured to generate new ideas. Clever!

  • Scott Wagers

    The parallel with Steve Jobs is striking. A creative visionary who organizes his company around pleasing the customer using small teams.

    There is a contrast here. He has unstructured days, but advocates writing which is a form of structured thinking. Thus, there is a balance between structured and unstructured thinking which is the best environment to cultivate creativity.

  • JaciGre

    One for the library and the wallet.

  • jimbo

    He forgot “treat contract warehouse employees like slaves”

  • Francis

    Trying to emulate someone else’s recipes for success is often a recipe for disaster. If you are a secretive kind of person, you will enjoy and thrive in an environment with little communication; other people thrive in a more open environment. What works for you doesn’t have to be what works for M. Bezos. There are probably lots of reasons why Jeff Bezos is successful –
    because he is smart, because he has drive, because he is lucky, etc. If copying his quirks where enough to get rich, then there would be more millionaires out there.

  • Jon Reily

    Amazon still does use door blanks for desks; I am writing this from one right now.

  • Ka Ying Neng Moua

    Every day I exercise the passion I find in continuing my career goal. It’s a unique one especially since I haven’t met anyone in my community do the same. I am struck and reminded of the questions that initiated my passionate drive.

  • Parks

    What size pizzas do you attribute to rule #3? This will have a strong effect on the size of the team.

  • Willians Gomes de Campos

    I do hope Jeff Bezos will achieve much more than his own goals in carving that hole for his 10,000 year clock. However, time neither belongs to mankind nor is under its control – never will be, but God’s alone! …. men’s intuition may radically change, in a split of a second.

  • 8lackie

    A good sentence is half a good thought.

  • sunk818

    Two Pizza Rule: I can eat a large pizza by myself… does that mean my team can only be compromised of two people if I get another fattie as a team member?

  • Melanie Knight

    “two pizza teams”: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

    Just brilliant.

  • robrogan

    A clock does not control time, but once in a while, it draws your attention to its passing. Similarly with this Millennial Clock Project, the “minute hand” (so to speak) will tick annually, and the toll of the clock will ring once every 1,000 years, hopefully continuing to do so for 10,000 years. Who knows if it will last or if anyone will remember it, but there is potential for long-term inspiration and reflection through such a device.

  • niko niko

    i like that, but i think it more important to have those things in your life, but me mentally prepared to let them go at any time

  • h-1b visa requirements

    Many thanks for such a write-up. I undoubtedly cherished reading it and talk about this it to my friends.

  • Harold Ronald MC

    A 999 year clock would be more fun.
    Rather concerned about Amazonas tax avoidance history he seems to be spending more on the clock thing & private projects then the company pay UK corporation tax on vast profits. Amazon rather like the river has a dark side

  • soubriquet

    A resoundingly shallow and stupid statement, not worthy of repeating.
    A spouse? Children? People you love?

    Learning?
    Development?

    Endeavour?

  • RogerEllman

    Francis. This is a wholly good point. It is though, a great benefit to hear of others methods and philosophies from time to time. They can enliven and refresh…questioning what we do, why, the results and more on a regular, but not continuous(!) basis is helpful.

    There is not doubt in my mind that what works for one>…works for one. Just, well, it is worth seeing if ideas spring from…they usually do, others.

    This is a far better than average article in the way it treats its subject. Because there is detail, description of actions, appliable ideas if wished. Contrasting favourably to all too many biz-think writing which gives such a mushy generalism, such mission-fuzzy description, that little can really be gained except the occasional “Wow!” – all too easily uttered around the blogo-writer’s-sphere at the moment.

  • RogerEllman

    Oh you measurer!!!!

  • Marianwhit

    Isn’t that a weekend?

  • robskils

    He probably wouldn’t be quite so successful if he actually paid tax!

  • Bavaria

    Jeff Bezos knows how to run a company; He is aware that employees need to have their own independant ideas and that too much communication force people to think and act in the same way. Moreover, Jeff Bezos definitively knows WHY he runs its company; His long-term objectives underpin his vision and enable him to be one step ahead of its competitors.

  • Bavaria

    Jeff Bezos knows how to run a company; He is aware that employees need to have their own independant ideas and that too much communication force people to think and act in the same way. Moreover, Jeff Bezos definitively knows WHY he runs its company; His long-term objectives underpin his vision and enable him to be one step ahead of its competitors.

  • Valère Avril

    Jeff Bezos knows how to run a company; He is aware that too much communication can be harmful for it decreases the diversity of ideas into the company. Moreover, Jeff Bezos definitively knows WHY he runs its company; Its long term objectives underscore his vision and enable him to be one step ahead of its competitors.

  • Joe Flood

    Clearly written business communication is incredibly helpful and inspiring because it’s completely different from how most managers communicate. I say more English majors and fewer MBAs!

  • maryann

    Potential regret is the rule of thumb by which I make all major decions, and I try to remember to use it as a guideline for life in general. Does that make for a guilt-free life? No, because goofs are inevitable and we don’t always have access to all necessary info, or are misled. Potential regret has, however, done a pretty good job of providing serenity and the energy to move forward.

  • jerricarr

    The Long Term…to me this is a no brainer. But, I realize to many the long term can be too overwhelming to consider. I like to use the questions “How will this benefit me down the road?” “How will this get me closer to/further away from my goals?” Of course, you have to have goals or at least an idea of where you want to be (at minimum) 5 years down the road. Think ahead, plan ahead…I just don’t see how this CAN’T help EVERYTHING in the short and long term. I have a very clear visual in my mind and a very precise feeling in my heart & body of what I want to be doing in 10 years and I keep implementing steps as to how I think I can make that happen.

  • Stock Tips

    Useful information shared. I am very happy to read this article. Thanks for giving us nice info. Fantastic walk through. I appreciate this post. Stock tips

  • http://twitter.com/SlickAccount SlickAccount

    To us long term is better tools for every small businesses in the world, curated for them and we solve issues for them helping them grow. We know how we grew. We helped businesses in the past providing great websites that do business for them, today we are building accounting software that help them stay profitable, tomorrow we will be touching every small business on solving some really critical issues for them.

    We are still no bigger, we stay lean to be profitable and create technologies to help us grow.

    For us:
    1. great team is great company
    2. shape and freedom is key to great product
    3. wear customers shoes and feel their pain. this way only you can be successful
    4. small teams are great
    5. nothing is permanent, be subtle. Don’t get disheartened or over excited. Only work till you get what you wanted.

  • Daniel

    Amazon is not an example of a company for nobody as it doesn’t pay writers all they earn and creates excuses to keep their money and evade taxes all over the world, namely by selling writers work without registering their real sales. If people said the truth more often, specially the one linked to lawsuits, instead of kissing the ass of big corporations, the world wouldn’t be talking about money bullies as if they were heroes, but honest investors!

    • fjddd

      1- its a free world.
      2- You cant evade taxes if profits are low or non existant… what % can you pay of your profits if you lost money ?

  • fjddd

    hey pays taxes

  • fjddd

    If youre not prepared to walk away from your family in 60 seconds youre a terrible husband and father.

  • Gaurav

    Whats your problem with MBAs! They are people like you who have held real jobs, have generally done well in life and have invested in a degree to acquaint themselves with the language of business. So, whats your problem?

  • Luke Stoddard Nathan

    Nice! All of these ideas are explored in depth in Brad Stone’s recent biography as well. Here’s excerpts: https://medium.com/lessons-learned/527f3713ba90

  • wesmouch

    He may be a genius but his company does not make money

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