Jeff Bezos’s parting note as Amazon’s CEO is about biology and death

In his last letter to shareholders as CEO, Jeff Bezos offered a message about death.
In his last letter to shareholders as CEO, Jeff Bezos offered a message about death.
Image: Reuters/Jason Redmond/
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In 1997, the year Amazon went public, founder and longtime CEO Jeff Bezos started writing an annual letter to the company’s shareholders.

Today, Amazon published his final letter as CEO. At the end of the year, Bezos intends to step aside and become executive chair, a post that will allow him to focus on endeavors such as his space company, Blue Origin, his ownership of the Washington Post, and the charitable funds he has founded.

In his parting words as the company’s top executive, Bezos talked about a range of subjects, such as Amazon’s employees and the value Amazon creates, but his conclusion had a more philosophical flavor. “This is my last annual shareholder letter as the CEO of Amazon, and I have one last thing of utmost importance I feel compelled to teach,” Bezos wrote. “I hope all Amazonians take it to heart.” He then launched into some musings about biology, death, and their relation to Amazon.

Bezos introduced his thoughts by quoting a lengthy passage from The Blind Watchmaker, a book by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins about how unconscious natural selection designed the stunning complexities of life on earth. Here’s a shortened version of the section Bezos quoted:

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. If you measure some quantity such as the temperature, the acidity, the water content or the electrical potential in a living body, you will typically find that it is markedly different from the corresponding measure in the surroundings…More generally, if living things didn’t work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die.

“While the passage is not intended as a metaphor, it’s nevertheless a fantastic one, and very relevant to Amazon,” Bezos wrote. “I would argue that it’s relevant to all companies and all institutions and to each of our individual lives too.”

In his view, this fight against equilibrium, which he also equates with being “normal” or “typical,” requires constant work. But it’s the only way to be original. The world pushes everyone to be typical, according to Bezos. His advice: “Don’t let it happen.”

What’s this got to do with Amazon? In this framework, Amazon represents a distinctive company, battling against the natural pull toward normalcy. “The world will always try to make Amazon more typical—to bring us into equilibrium with our environment,” Bezos wrote. “It will take continuous effort, but we can and must be better than that.”

It’s a rousing farewell to Amazon employees from their longtime leader. Of course what Bezos conveniently doesn’t mention is that, despite the great energy living things expend fighting this return to equilibrium, eventually all of them die.