the everything kid

Even as a child, Jeff Bezos was a data-obsessed, workaholic genius

January 3, 2014
January 3, 2014

Brad Stone’s The Everything Store tells the story of Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon. It also illuminates how childhood personality and ambitions would drive his adult accomplishments, giving us a window into what might be our future. The following string of anecdotes connect the life stories of the boy who would become the man: a spatially-talented inventor, an ambitious space explorer with dreams of saving humanity, and a focused and disciplined workaholic who always believed his work was central to his life.

The tinkerer. A three-year-old Bezos would dismantle his crib in a bid for sleeping in a real bed. He admired Thomas Edison, getting parts from Radio Shack for his inventions: “homemade robots, hovercrafts, a solar-powered cooker, and devices to keep siblings out of his room.”  Today, he is building a 10,000-year symbolic clock deep inside a mountain on his Texas ranch: “If [humans] think long term, we can accomplish things we wouldn’t otherwise accomplish.  Time horizons matter, they matter a lot…we as humans are getting awfully sophisticated in technological ways and have a lot of potential to be very dangerous to ourselves.  It seems to me that we, as a species, have to start thinking longer term.”

The workaholic. His mom explained: “I knew he was precocious and determined and incredibly focused.” In Montessori preschool, teachers said “the boy became so engrossed in whatever he was doing that they had to pick his chair up, with him still in it, and move it to the next activity.” A high school friend observed “he was capable of really focusing, in a crazy way, on certain things. He was extremely disciplined.”  When working as vice president at hedge fund D. E. Shaw, he had an office sleeping bag. He embraced at Amazon what a colleague called “work-life harmony” over “work-life balance.” Bezos stated: “The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority…That is the DNA of Amazon.  If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you.”

The space enthusiast. At five, on a black and white television, Bezos watched Apollo 11 land on the moon starting a lifelong fascination with space. He read Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. In high school he won awards for best science and math student, and as valedictorian revealed his “dream of saving humanity by creating permanent human colonies in orbiting space stations while turning the planet into an enormous nature preserve.”  Today, he has created Blue Origin, focused on reducing the cost of spaceflight and helping humans explore the solar system.

The genius. At age eight, Bezos scored highly on a standardized IQ test. At Amazon he “felt that hiring only the best and brightest was key to Amazon’s success.” Early on, he did interviews himself and asked candidates for SAT scores. He said: “Every time we hire someone, he or she should raise the bar for the next hire, so that the overall talent pool is always improving.” He had managers with large groups grade their employees on a curve, and let go of the people at the bottom. Beyond high IQ and performance, he respected counterintuitive solutions, often repeating Alan Kay’s phrase: “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”

The data geek. In sixth grade, Bezos developed a statistical survey to evaluate his teachers on how well they actually taught, rather than what he considered was often a popularity contest. At Amazon, once a week there are metrics meetings, and “the company relies on metrics to make almost every important decision, such as what features to introduce or kill.”  For example, the Competitive Intelligence team “buys large volumes of products from competitors and measures the agility and speed of their services.” Amazon knows when and where it is behind and needs to catch up.

Gradatim Ferociter, Step by Step, Ferociously—is the motto of Blue Origin, and it fits all his ventures. At a Princeton University commencement address, Bezos said: “In the end, we are our choices.”  Since childhood he has used this method, making small incremental advances daily in pursuit of his wildly ambitious goals, which compose his long time horizon. Given what Bezos has already accomplished and the resources he has at his disposal, much more than the everything store, a timeless clock, and the stars are his limit.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at @JonathanLWaiWe welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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