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

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

By Jonathan Wai January 3, 2014

Jonathan Wai is a researcher at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and Case Western Reserve University and writes “Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative” for Psychology Today.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.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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