Summit Sessions Transcript
A Conversation Between Jeff and Mark Bezos
Filmed at Summit LA17 on November 4, 2017 at the Orpheum Theatre.
See the video here.
Elliott Bisnow: Once in your life you have the opportunity to see a talk of this caliber and the reason is there’s almost [no one] in history who’ve created what Jeff Bezos has. He’s the founder and CEO of the 4th largest company in the world.
By show of hands, how many people are members of Amazon Prime? If you guys can’t see, it’s everyone. How many people shop at Whole Foods? It was also everyone.
He’s personally the owner of one of the two most important newspapers in America. Working vigorously every day to tell the most important stories, The Washington Post. And there’s not a better person to interview Jeff Bezos than his brother Mark, who 20 years ago was on the team that created the Robin Hood Foundation, and worked there for 20 years - the largest poverty fighting nonprofit in New York City. For the last 12 years, Mark has been a volunteer fire department, uh, firefighter in upstate New York. He was involved with Amazon from day 1 and he’s the director of the family foundation. Please get on your feet and welcome the Bezos brothers.
Mark Bezos [MB]: Elliott, thank you very much. So, this gentleman certainly needs no introduction. My name is Mark Bezos, and you’re all welcome to call me what my friends do. They usually just refer to me as Jeff’s brother.
Jeff Bezos [JB]: By the way, just so you know, this actually does go both ways. My brother has a TED Talk about small acts of kindness, being a volunteer firefighter and it has millions of views and every once in awhile somebody will stop me and say, “I love your TED Talk about being a firefighter and small acts of kindness.” And I usually say, “Well thank you, but that’s really my brother, his TED Talk,” but if I’m in a hurry I just say “Thank you.” So thank you.
MB: Yes, absolutely. But if any of you do get confused, I’m the one with the smaller bank account to your left.
JB: He’s the big brother.
MB: Um, so, Jeff before we get started, I think this is obviously a crowd of influential people, people who are starting out. I think we might as well just make the most of their time, I’m just going to dive right into this if you don’t mind.
JB: Let’s go.
MB: You are a captain of industry. Amazon.com, private space flight with Blue Origin, The Washington Post, levels of fame and wealth that are hard to comprehend. I guess one question that is probably at the top of everyone’s mind is “If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your favorite part of having me as a little brother?” [audience laughter] Cause, I’ve taken the liberty of writing down some thoughts.
JB: By the way, I know the answer to this, and there are many things I love about having Mark as a brother, but what he just did is #1 on the top of the list. When I am with my brother, I just laugh continuously because he is the funniest guy in my life.
MB: Well, thank you. You’re an easy audience and I appreciate it.
JB: I am actually an easy audience, that is true.
MB: He is.
JB: I am.
MB: So here’s what we’re going to do, if all of you don’t mind. So, the fact that a fireside chat among brothers, this is not unique for us. This is something that we do quite often. It’s rare that we have a couple thousand of our closest friends with us and it’s also rare -
JB: We don’t do it in front of an audience and we usually actually have a fire.
MB: Yes, and bourbon.
MB: Which we don’t have now.
MB: What we’re going to talk about, the things that I’m going to chat with Jeff about, are not the sorts of things perhaps that you would hear in most interviews because, you know, I don’t do rules and it’s not really my jam, so we’re not going to talk about those things, but we do have a shared history. So what I really want to focus on is the influences and inspirations that have led to some of the things, the foundation of what -
JB: This is a little intimidating, he knows way too much.
MB: So, what I’d like to do is invite all of you to join in on what is some of our greatest hits, I guess, from my point of view. And because we have such a shared history, what I’ve done, much to Jeff’s chagrin, I’ve gone through and taken the liberty of pulling together a bunch of family photos. So I’m going to be throwing some of those up behind us, just so you guys can sort of understand if we start talking shorthand what it is that we’re referring to. All sound good? Alright! So I appreciate your patience, this is not the sort of thing I usually do, so I appreciate your patience. We’re just going to dive right into it. So when we were kids, we would spend every summer on our grandfather’s ranch in South Texas. We called our grandfather, Pop.
JB: That’s Pop.
MB: Yup, there’s Pop right there.
JB: We’re probably just fixing that windmill.
MB: Yes, always fixing windmills. Before you were climbing them and smashing bottles upon them, which you did recently in an Instagram video. One of the things that we would do every summer, it was really a magical experience. There’s little Jeff.
JB: Yes, that was my maximum cuteness right there. [audience laughter] It was all downhill from there. That’s a 1962 International Harvester Scout. We all learned to drive in that car. Once you could drive that car, you can drive anything.
MB: And then this is the two of us. That is Jeff teaching me how to open or close a gate, which doesn’t seem like it would be that complicated, but I was having trouble.
JB: Wire gap gates are tough.
MB: And then this is -
JB: That’s Red. Well, that’s Christina, our sister.
MB: That’s our sister, Christina, but the horse is Red. So, I guess one of the things that we learned that summer -
JB: That’s Pop.
M: Yes, that’s Pop again. I guess one of the things we alluded to with the windmill, there was always work to be done on the ranch. And, one of the things, you know, that I think we’ve learned to value and I think you’ve spoken about this in the past is the role that resourcefulness, self-reliance, plays. It’s certainly in everything, especially a place like the ranch, but can you talk a little about –
JB: Well so, one of the great things that you learn – first of all, we had very fortunate lucky childhoods. We got to spend a lot of time with Pop and our grandparents and you learn different things from grandparents than you learn from parents – it’s just a very different relationship. I spent all my summers on his ranch, from age 4 to 16, and he was incredibly self-reliant. You know if you’re in the middle of nowhere, in a rural area, you don’t pick up the phone and call somebody when something breaks, you figure out how to fix it yourself so as a kid I got to see him solve all these problems and be a real problem solver. He even did his own veterinary work. He would make his own needles to suture up the cattle with. He would take a piece of wire, use a blowtorch to heat it up. Pound it flat. Sharpen it. Drill a hole through it, make a needle. And some of the cattle even survived. [audience laughter] But we learned a lot of things from watching him, because he would take on major projects that he didn’t really know how to do and then figure out how to do them.
MB: A good example of that is you guys built a house. I think he bought this out of a Sears Catalog.
JB: It was a kit house, and we built that thing. Someone came out, it all showed up in big boxes and somebody, a professional came out and poured the foundation, and then we did the rest of it, but that was quite a project. You can see some of the cows there that didn’t survive the procedure.
MB: So when I was going through these, I came across this photo – which I’m not exactly sure what it was you’re doing here, but I’m almost positive you’re doing it wrong.
JB: Maybe that vent really pissed me off. I don’t know, that’s certainly -
MB: Well, I think there’s a couple things here. First of all, OSHA would not be pleased with the way you’re on that ladder, and it appears as though you’re crafting a spear.
JB: I don’t know what I’m doing. Yeah.
MB: And I think if you could talk a little bit, I know there’s a bulldozer in the background.
JB: That’s a D6 Caterpillar bulldozer that my grandfather bought used for $5,000, which is an enormous bargain. This should cost way more than that. The reason it was so cheap was it was completely broken. The transmission was stripped, the hydraulics didn’t work. So we spent, basically, a whole summer repairing it. Big giant gears would arrive by mail order from Caterpillar and we couldn’t even more the gears, so the first thing my grandfather did was build a crane to move the gears. So that’s that kind of self-reliance and resourcefulness.
MB: There’s also a story that is somewhat legendary in our family. One of the things that Pop did one summer was a little out of character.
JB: Oh, I know what story you’re talking about. So he really actually was a very careful, conservative sort of person. Not prone to crazy acts or anything. He was kind of an introspective, even introverted, quiet person. But one day he was all by himself, he had driven to the ranch and he was at the main gate to the ranch and he forgot to put the car in park. So when he got to the gate, he noticed that the car was slowly rolling down hill toward the gate. He thought, “This is fantastic. I have just enough time to unlatch the gate, throw the gate open, the car is going to drive right through and this will be wonderful.” He almost got the gate unlatched when the car hit the gate and it caught his thumb between the gate and the fence post and it stripped all the flesh off of his thumb. It was hanging there by a tiny little thread and he was so angry at himself that he ripped that piece of flesh off and threw it in the brush. Got back in the car, drove himself to the emergency room in Dilley, Texas, 16-miles away. And when he got there, they said, “This is great. We can reattach that, where it is?” He said, “Well, I threw it in the brush.” They drove back, with the nurses and everybody, and they all looked for hours for the thumb and they never found that piece of flesh. Something probably had eaten it. [audience laughter] So they take him back to the emergency room and said “Look, you have two choices: you’re going to have to have a skin graft for that and we can sew your thumb to your stomach and leave it there for 6 weeks. That’s the best way to do it. Or, we can just cut a piece of skin graft from your butt and just suture it on and it won’t ever be as good, but the advantage is your thumb won’t be sewn to your stomach for six weeks. And he said, “I’ll take option 2, just do the skin graft from my butt.” And he did that, it was very successful, and it worked fine. But the funniest thing about this story is that I have incredibly vivid memories, we all do of him, definitely his morning were completely ritualized. He would wake up, eat breakfast cereal, read the newspaper, and shave with an electric razor for a really long time. Like he would shave with that electric razor for like 15 minutes while he was eating his cereal. And when he was done shaving his face with that razor, he would take two quick passes over his thumb because his thumb grew butt hair. [audience laughter] Which, by the way, did not bother him at all.
MB: No, he was completely unfazed by it.
MB: So, uh, thumb butt hair aside. The value of resourcefulness, right, and self-reliance. How do you apply that to the work that you do on a daily basis? How do you -
JB: Well, I think - there are a lot of entrepreneurs and people pursuing dreams and passions know - the whole point of moving things forward is you run into problems, you run into failures, things don’t work, you have to back up and try again. Each one of those times when you have to step back, back up and try again. You’re using resourcefulness, you’re using self-reliance. You’re trying to invent your way out of a box, and we have tons of examples at Amazon where we have had to do this. We failed so many times. I always think of us as a great place to fail because we’re good at it. We have so much practice. And, to give you one example, we, many years ago now, we started a third-party selling business because we knew it could add selection to the store that way, and we started Amazon Auctions. Nobody came, I think maybe our mother was the only one who purchased something.
MB: I bought a coffee cup.
JB: You bought a coffee cup. Okay, so there were 2 purchasers. And so we said, “What can we do?” So we opened this thing called Z Shops, which was fixed price auctions. And again nobody came.
MB: I didn’t use that.
JB: And then finally, each one of these failures is like a year/year and a half long, and so, we’re trying to invent new things. We finally came across this idea of putting the third-party selection on the same detail pages, the same product detail pages that we had our own inventory on, our own retail inventory on, and we called it the Marketplace and it started working right away. So that resourcefulness of trying new things, figuring things out, what do customers really want. It pays off in everything, and it pays off even in your daily lives. How do you help your children, what’s the right thing? My wife has a great saying - we let our kids use, even now they’re 17 through 12, but even when they were 4, we would let them use sharp knives. By the time they were, I don’t know, maybe 7 or 8, we would let them use certain power tools and my wife, much to her credit, she has this great saying, “I would much rather have a kid with 9 fingers than a resourceless kid.” Which, I just think, is a fantastic attitude about life.
MB: Luckily you have resourceful kids with 10 fingers each.
JB: Yes, so far they have all their fingers. We’ll see.
MB: Yeah, exactly. I know that resourcefulness is so important to you. It was a prerequisite for the selection of a spouse.
JB: Yeah, in my 20’s this is, you know, way pre-Tinder, pre-Match.com. At a certain point I decided I wanted to get married. I had all my friends setting me up. I had my list of criteria. And this was like good, old-fashioned blind dates. I went on dozens of blind dates. And, turns out, I kept meeting people who were professional blind daters. And I sort of became a professional blind dater, and so we would sit down and most of the conversation was quickly about how “Yeah, we’re not right for each other, but how do you meet people?” But when I was telling my friends my criteria, one of the ones I would list was that I wanted a woman who could get me out of a third-world prison, and my friends were like “What are your future plans?” [audience laughter] And I said “No, it’s just a visualization for somebody really resourceful, because I think that you don’t want to go through life with teammates who aren’t resourceful. You do want to go through life with people who, if you need, could get you out of a third-world prison. Hypothetically speaking.
MB: So, this is a picture.
JB: That’s a recent photo.
MB: That was last summer I think. We were on a family vacation and so this one jumped out at me because you were doing MacKenzie curls there with your wife and you’re looking a little buff. So that, of course, made me think of this.
[audience applause and laughter]
MB: Now, as internet memes go, swoll Jeff is pretty cool, right? [audience laughter] You know if swoll Mark raced across the internet, I’d be pretty psyched. This got sent to me by so many people, variations of this. “Oh my god, your brother looks awesome!” I know, but it confused me, because in all honesty, this is what I grew up with. [audience applause and laughter] I’m just saying, right? So, when you guys saw swoll Jeff, I was surprised too.
JB: Yeah. This image, sexy right? I mean, I remember that.
MB: How old were you here?
JB: That’s my Halloween costume and I am one of, I had some friends and we went as the Fruit of the Loom.
MB: Oh no. Wait, wait, there you go.
JB: There you go. That is, yeah.
MB: You went as lady killers.
JB: Chicks love that. They love that. We were very successful in high school.
MB: So, as fitness goes. And then there was this guy – who was late 90’s Jeff.
JB: Yeah, something like that.
MB: Your eating habits at this point in your life were not great.
JB: No. This is, you won’t even believe this story. You’re just going to have to believe me when I tell you this is true. When my wife and I got married, I had been eating a whole can, for a couple of years, I had been eating for breakfast every morning a whole can of Pillsbury biscuits. So I would wake up in the in morning, I would preheat the oven to 375. I would get out the baking sheet. I would crack open the Pillsbury biscuits. Place them on there - with butter! And I would eat the whole can. I was skinny as a rail and it was just, and after watching me, and then we get married and she watched me do this every morning as my spouse for like 3 months and then she finally stopped me one day and she said, “Do you know what’s in that?” and I was like honestly that wasn’t even a concept for me that there was something in food. You know that there was like a, I had never read a nutrition label in my life. I ate what tasted good to me. So she kind of showed me the ingredients label and we had a little rudimentary discussion about nutrition and I stopped eating the biscuits.
MB: Well, I’m frankly very happy, and somewhat surprised, you survived all of that. We’re glad you’re still with us.
JB: So she was incredulous, you wouldn’t believe it.
MB: So one of the things I want to talk about, a question that we’ve talked about before. You were 30 years old in 1994 when you decided to start Amazon.com. You had a great job, I remember you had a great apartment on the Upper West Side.
JB: I was married for a year. I had not been eating biscuits for 9 months.
MB: How did you go through making the decision to drop what was a very good job, and take this chance? It all seems very obvious now, right? This many years later that it paid off. But, at the time, it was not obvious.
JB: No, it wasn’t. I did do a lot of soul searching. In fact, I went to my boss at the time and I really liked my job, and I told my boss I was going to start doing this thing, do an internet bookstore and I had already told my wife and she’s like, “Great, let’s go” and I said to my boss and he’s like “I think this is good idea, but I think this would be an even better idea for somebody that didn’t already have a good job.” And that sort of made some logical sense to me. And he asked me to think about it for a couple days. So I went away and I was really trying to get my head around how to think about this. And I think, for me, the right way to make that kind of very personal decision, because those decisions are personal, they’re not like data-driven business decisions. They are, “What does your heart say?” And for me, the best way to think about it was to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Look, when I’m 80 years old, I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have.” I don’t want to be 80 years old and in a quiet moment of reflection, thinking back over my life, and cataloguing a bunch of major regrets. And I think that regrets, our biggest regrets, in most cases, you can murder somebody and okay, you’ll regret that, but in most cases our biggest regrets turn out to be acts of omission. It’s paths not taken and they haunt us. We wonder what would have happened. I loved that person and I never told them, and then they married somebody else. I didn’t do this, and so that’s the frame of mind that I put myself in and once I did that, and thought about it that way, it was immediately obvious to me. I knew that when I’m 80, I would never regret trying this thing that I was super excited about and it failing. If it failed, fine. I would be very proud of the fact when I’m 80 that I tried. And I also knew that it would always haunt me if I didn’t try. And so that would be a regret, it would be 100% chance of regret if I didn’t try and basically a 0% chance of regret if I tried and failed. So I think that’s a useful metric for any important life decision.
MB: This is, uh, our sister took this photo. I don’t know why she quite thought this was a momentous occasion. This is you and MacKenzie.
JB: Yeah, we were about to take off driving across the country, to start Amazon, go to Seattle. That’s my yellow lab, Kamala, named after a Star Trek character.
MB: We’re so happy to have these family photos but we can’t for the life of us figure out why Christina bothered to take them but we’re so glad she did. And then she also was smart enough to tell you to leave the dog.
JB: Yeah, she saved us probably, because we were going to drive across the country with the dog, which is probably not a good idea. She said, “Why don’t I keep the dog, and after you guys get settled, I’ll send you the dog.”
MB: So, a question I have is, we just talked about the fact that it was certainly no guarantee that Amazon was going to work.
JB: No, there never is in any kind of start up.
MB: What would Jeff Bezos be doing if this hadn’t worked out?
JB: I think… It’s a good question. Nobody ever really knows what life twists and turns life takes. My best guess is I would be a very happy software engineer.
MB: Yeah. Working on anything in particular?
JB: Well today, I might be, I don’t know. I’m very very curious about machine learning and artificial intelligence and at Amazon we’re doing a lot of that. Probably I would be attracted to that field today.
MB: I thought of this question. I’m not sure exactly how you would answer it, but I am curious to know your fantasy job. Not the one that would pay the bills.
JB: Well, that I have. I have. And you know what it is. He knows.
MB: My guess is...bartender.
JB: Yeah. I do have - by the way I’m really glad I’m wearing my “Honey Badger Don’t Care” t-shirt there. Thank you for that photo because it looks like I’ve had about four of those already. I appreciate that.
MB: Well, it looks like a Bloody Mary. That’s a great start. That’s an early start.
JB: What are brothers for?
MB: You make a mean cocktail.
JB: I do. I pride myself on my craft cocktails, and I do have this fantasy that I want to be a bartender. And I know that it is a fantasy like, if I were actually a bartender, like, I’ve glamorized the job in my mind. I know that. But I love people. I like talking to people. I love making cocktails.
MB: You’re not very fast.
JB: I’m super slow.
MB: It would have to be a very slow bar.
JB: It would have to be a craft cocktail bar. We’d have to charge a lot per drink and there’d be a big sign behind the bar that says, “You can have it good or you can have it fast.” Which do you want? You know, that kind of thing. But yeah, I have a kind of fantasy there.
MB: So, if we could shift gears a little bit, I want to talk about Blue Origin.
MB: So Blue Origin is your private spaceflight, commercial spaceflight company. And we’ll talk in a minute about all the work that you're doing in that regard. But, I guess, what I want to focus on, for a minute or two, is the inspiration for that. The passion behind it. So, I’m going to put up a photo now. This one is really more embarrassing for me than for you. But, so, here we are -
JB: You look like you’re about to block a soccer kick or something, I don’t know.
MB: I’m auditioning for Alvin and The Chipmunks.
JB: On the far right there is our dad. Chico and the man there on the right. He’s Cuban and it’s one of those tricks that the universe plays on you that my mom’s name is Jackie and my name is Jeff and there’s no “J” in Spanish. And so he used to call her “Yacky” and me “Yeff.” But he sounds exactly like Ricky Ricardo and is a delightful guy. But yeah, there’s the whole crew there.
MB: So you were the valedictorian of your high school in Miami and had the opportunity to give a speech at your graduation and you, I think, the vast majority of your speech was about colonizing space.
JB: I think all of it.
MB: I think all of it, as well. Right. So, and I still remember your closing line. Even then it stood out to me. And it was - do you remember it?
JB: I do. I remember the closing line. It was something like: Space, the final frontier. Meet me there.
MB: That was it.
JB: And I’ve been passionate about space, rockets, rocket engines, since I was a 5-year-old boy.
MB: And so I want to talk about that a little bit because we’ve talked about, certainly the story you’ve told about having seen the moon landing in 1969, right? So this is Pop again. That’s Christina, our sister, on the floor. So this was a very familiar setting for us. Anytime Pop was watching TV, he had perfectly good furniture, I could see it.
JB: He liked to lay on the floor.
MB: He always laid on the floor to watch television. And you remember seeing him exactly like this when you were watching the lunar landing.
JB: Yeah, that was his posture. You never know exactly, you don't choose your passions, your passions choose you. How they are formed, you’re never completely sure. But I do think you get imprinted somehow early on the certain things, you just get excited about them. And because you’re excited you pay more attention, and they grow. And that’s space, space is like that for me. I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon when I was 5.
MB: And I do wonder. I know that Pop was a big fan of the Watergate trials. Also watched them in the same setting.
JB: Just like this. Yeah, he was a news junkie anyway, he religiously, obsessively watched the Watergate hearings.
MB: Do you think at some level that might have influenced you to at least buy The Post?
JB: It’s hard to know. You know. I bought The Post because I think it’s an important institution and I told the team at the time, The Post at the time was kind of financially upside down and had a lot of work to do, no fault of their own. The internet had really taken the wind out of newspaper companies. And I said look, you know, I would not buy a financially upside-down salty snack food company, but The Post is a real institution I think matters and needs some runway. So that’s why I did it. I happen to know the guy who had owned it for so many years, Don Graham, who’s just an amazing person, and so that all worked out. But did watching the Watergate hearings with Pop on the carpet have influence on that? Probably.
MB: Right, on some level.
JB: You know?
MB: So, going back to Blue Origin. I mean, space has been such a big part of your life for so long. Certainly every memory -
JB: That’s in Houston. We lived in Houston for many years.
MB: That was a park not too far from our house. I think that, you know, science fiction, science fiction movies, books, my passion for that stuff certainly came from watching you enjoy it so much. You know I look at this picture and I thought to myself, we’ll I’ve seen that face recently. So this is...you’re standing on the landing pad in West Texas. A launch and landing site in West Texas where you’re launching and landing the New Shepard vehicle for Blue Origin. So if you could just take a minute or two to help us understand, what is Blue Origin up to?
JB: Well, the vision for Blue Origin is millions of people living and working in space. And the key thing is we have to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space. Right now space travel is very expensive. And the reason it’s expensive is not hard to understand. It’s because we throw the hardware away after each use. And so we need reusable rocket vehicles and that’s what Blue Origin is working on. We’re working on making sure that we don’t have to throw the plane away every time after you fly to your vacation destination. That would definitely increase the cost of your vacation. And so that’s what we need to do. And we can do it. It’s totally possible and I think it’s important.
MB: This is what the booster looks like when it’s coming back down.
JB: My cowboy hat still has champagne stains.
MB: That’s right, your hat.
JB: It’s the best kind of stains.
MB: So I guess, if we can talk, this is one of my favorite shots. This is the booster in West Texas.
JB: That’s West Texas. It’s beautiful country.
MB: So if you could just talk a little bit about, you’ve been passionate about space your whole life, but you know this is not just a play thing for you.
JB: No. God, no.
MB: The work that Blue Origin is doing is not just a nice thing. It’s important work.
JB: My view is that it’s incredibly important work that needs to be done and done as quickly as possible and I have my own reasons why I believe that and they can be explained pretty simply. For me, it’s not the… There's a very common argument that been around for a long time, actually first popularized by Arthur C. Clark, who said that all civilizations become space faring or extinct and this is kind of the Plan B argument. When earth is destroyed somehow, we better make sure that we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket. And I hate the Plan B argument. I think Plan B, with respect to earth being destroyed is to make sure Plan A works. So we have sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system. Believe me, this is the best one. We know that. It’s not even close. You know, my friends who say they want to move to Mars or something, I say, “Why don't you go live in Antarctica for a year first because it's a garden paradise compared to Mars.” And, so we really… This planet is so amazing. It’s a jewel in our solar system. And if you take baseline energy usage on earth and just compound it at a few percent a year, for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire earth’s surface in solar cells. So that’s not gonna happen. So we have two choices, we either go out into space or, we switch over to a civilization of stasis. And personally, I do not like the idea of stasis. You know… Our grandchildren and their grandchildren will live in a much better world if they can continue to advance and develop and use more energy and and all of the things that we've enjoyed for hundreds of years is a civilization of growth. I don't even really believe in stasis, I think things are either growing or shrinking. I think stasis is highly, highly unusual and in real life doesn't exist. I don't even think liberty is consistent with the idea of stasis. I mean, if you get real stasis, someone is going to have to tell you how many kids you can have, how much energy you can use. There will be all kinds of things that just aren't consistent with liberty and freedom so, but in space we have for all practical purposes, unlimited resource. We could have a trillion humans in the solar system, and still wouldn’t be crowded. So then if you add a trillion humans, you would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and a thousand DaVincis, and how cool would that be? But we have to go to space, and we have to go to space to save Earth. That's why this work is so important and we don't have forever to do it. We’ve now gotten so big as a civilization on Earth that we kind of have to hurry and so I believe that really in a kind of a long time frame the most important work I'm doing is Blue Origin and pushing forward to get humanity established in the solar system.
MB: So, in what sort of time frame are we talking about?
JB: Well, the grand vision is, you know, a trillion humans in the solar system...but that’s hundreds of years. But we can have, in just a couple of decades, I think we can have much lower cost space travel and then we can start to, you know, have a really dynamic entrepreneurial explosion in space. You know, you can't really have much entrepreneurial activity in space today because just the basic price of admission is too expensive. Just to do anything, even something relatively small in space, is still very, very expensive. We need to lower the cost of admission, so that thousands of entrepreneurs can have companies in space, kind of like what we’ve seen with the internet. Right now, you can be two kids in a dorm room making Facebook, but they can't make the space company, it’s not practical. I want to make that practical.
MB: Gotcha. So, you know that leads me to think about some of the conversations we've had. This is another view of those mountains in West Texas, sitting around the fire pit. And some of the most profound conversations for me, anyway, that’s we’ve had are around the topic of long-term thinking. Which is something that you’ve really embraced. You’ve brought to the businesses that you run, and I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit - I don’t think that most people who are running businesses or even starting a company like Blue Origin allow themselves to think in centuries even for visions of what they’re creating. Amazon, I know that you’ve said 5-7 year time frames for experiments that you’re running. Talk to me about long-term thinking, and your point of view on -
JB: Well, long-term thinking is a lever. It lets you do things that you could not do, or couldn't even conceive of doing, if you were thinking short-term. So I have this project where I’m helping a group of people build a 10,000-year clock. It ticks once a year, dongs once a century, the cuckoo comes out once a millennium. It’s a bit 500-foot tall thing inside the mountain right here. Inside one of the mountain ranges. The 10,000-year-old clock is a symbol, I don’t think it will do anything for the first few hundred years, after the first few hundred years once it’s old, it will start to pay attention to older symbols. After a few hundred years from now, I hope people will think about that as a symbol for long-term thinking. If I collaborated with somebody here in this audience and I said, “Look, I want you to solve world hunger and I want you to do it in 5 years.” You would properly reject the opportunity. You would say it's not possible. It’s not practical. If I said, I want you to solve world hunger in 100 years, that’s a job you’d take, because it's a much more addressable problem. You can first create the conditions, you have time to create the conditions, for then you can solve the problem. So that's a very important way of thinking and it works with everything and you have to back up and find the right time horizon for what you're trying to do. But, at Amazon, we probably expect most of our things to get results in 5, 6, 7, 8 years. But we find a lot of other companies who compete against us in various ways, are trying to get things done in 2-3 years. We can do things. If everything has to work in 2-3 years, then that limits what you can do. If you give yourself the breathing room to say okay, I'm okay to take 7 years, all of a sudden you have way more opportunities.
MB: One of the things I want to shift to here is, when we are raising a glass around the fire, and you usually have a toast -
JB: A standard toast.
MB: A standard toast that you usually kick off the night with, and it’s -
JB: To adventure and fellowship.
MB: To adventure and fellowship. And, it literally is “the toast” that he kicks off just about every dinner with, right? Every dinner, every night. It’s interesting to me, because I know that you are somebody who pays attention to the words that you use, right? You’re careful about the words that you use, and those seem like very specific words. So I was wondering if we could just talk a little bit about why adventure and why fellowship, and as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that you've been taking some adventures throughout your whole life. Here you are -
JB: That’s our grandmother, Nanny.
MB: That’s Nanny. When you were a kid you used to take road trips with Nanny and -
JB: We did the Wally Byam Caravan Club roadtrip. 300 airstream trailers. Yeah, all driving down the highway together. Then we’d park -
MB: This was before they were hipster cool.
JB: Big wagon wheel formations. Yeah, there was no avocado toast at this time.
MB: And, you know, you and I had the fun opportunity, we drove across the country and -
JB: Yeah, in the Defender. That was a great, an amazing trip!
MB: We also, we spent 3 days on horseback -
JB: That was a 50-mile ride in West Texas, 3-days, super fun, my butt hurt.
MB: Yeah, I apologize about the quality. Like I said, this is not what I do, so this is the best I could do here. But I did take this picture, that’s Jeff sleeping on the trail ride.
JB: It was cold. That ring, you can see how I’m keeping that pillow from my - this is when you know it’s really good to be a mammal. Provide your own heat, provide your own body heat, keep the frost away from your face.
MB: I guess, you know, all of these adventures - this is, you’re dropping down into a cave.
JB: Yeah, that’s me repelling down. That was really fun, you were on that trip -
MB: I was on that trip too. So, you know, people have asked me this because they know that we go on a lot of adventures together, and they’re a bit incredulous when I answered the question, but they asked me, “Is he on his phone the whole time? Can he ever unplug?” And they’re incredulous when I say, “Honestly, he’s not on his phone that much.” He’s just, you know, we drove across the country. It’s not that you weren’t doing the work, it’s often like this. I see the same thing when you’re with your kids. How do you, I don’t have a fraction of the responsibility that you do, and I find that I’m always wrestling with my phone. I’m just curious, what sort of discipline, or how do you go about compartmentalizing the way that you -
JB: I do not, so like when I have dinner, whether it’s with friends or with my family, I like to be talking to the people I'm with. I like to do whatever I'm doing, I don't like to multitask. It bothers me. If I'm reading my email, I want to be really reading my email. My Mom tells a story about me being in Montessori School. They couldn’t get me to switch tasks, so the Montessori School teacher would literally have to pick up my chair and move me to the next task stations. So I don’t know, it’s not like
MB: It’s not intentional.
JB: I don’t need discipline to not be checking my e-mail. For me, it’s very natural, I love being present on what I’m working on. I’m happy multitasking, but I do it serially. You know, I’ll spend - honestly, if something really important is happening, somebody will find me. You know, it’s not like I have to check my text messages every five minutes or something like that. That’s not a big deal.
MB: Right. And usually when they do find you, it’s rarely to give you good news.
JB: Somebody comes and say you need to check your text messages right now, that’s gotta be bad news. That usually actually, honestly, a family thing. It’s a medical thing, or something. It’s like, I think that’s probably just a very personal decision. I think some people are very good at multitasking, and so they can do two things at once, and you know, I’m at restaurants with my wife or something and we’ll see a couple both texting, but every once in awhile they show each other their phones. It seems like they’re having a very nice date, so I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not how I’m wired.
MB: Got it. So, going back to this sense of adventure. You know, can you talk to me a little bit about what the role that adventure plays in your life? And, you know, what is it it that it brings to you. It’s more than just a distraction.
JB: Yeah, no, so...so when I say to adventure and fellowship. For me , adventure is a - you can choose, we all get to choose our life stories. It’s the choices that define us, not our gifts. Everybody in this room has many gifts. I have many gifts. You can never be proud of your gifts, because they’re gifts. They were given to you. You might be tall, or you might be really good at math, or you might be extremely beautiful, or handsome, or you know there are many gifts and you can only be proud of your choices, because those are the things that you are that you’re acting on, and one of the most important choices that each of us has, and you know this just as well as I do, is you can choose a life of ease and comfort, or you can choose a life of service and adventure. And when you’re 80, which one of those things you're think you're going to be more proud of. You’re going to be more proud of having chosen a life of service and adventure, you see this in your firefighting work and everything else you do. Robin Hood, so on and so on. I feel like that is, for me, adventure is a shorthand way of thinking about that.
MB: Got it. And I think that one of the other things we talk about, when we talk about adventure, is exposing yourself to new things, and maintaining that childlike sense of wonder.
MB: I know this is important to you, certainly in our personal lives. Which is why we do all these fun things, but it also plays an important role in how you approach the businesses that you’re involved in.
JB: If you want to be an inventor of any kind, inventing a new service offering for customers, or a new product or anything. The, being an inventor requires, cause the world is so complicated, you have to be a domain expert. In a way, even if you’re not beginning, you have to to learn, learn, learn, learn enough to become a domain expert. But the danger is, once you’ve become a domain expert, you can be trapped by that knowledge, so inventors have this paradoxical ability to have that, 10,000 hours of practice and be a real domain expert and have that beginner’s mind. Have that, look at it freshly, even though they know so much about the domain. And that’s the key to inventing. You have to have both. And I think that’s intentional. I think all that’s inside of us, we can all do it, you have to be intentional about it. You have to say, I am going to become an expert and I’m going to keep my beginner’s mind.
MB: I mean, this is so important. It’s a regular refrain, even at Amazon this far into it, that it’s still day one.
JB: Day one.
MB: So, one of these - I guess - the other half of that toast is to fellowship.
MB: To adventure and fellowship. Fellowship, again is a very specific word. Friendship is much more common. Why did you, what is it about fellowship?
JB: For me, the word fellowship conjures a vision of traveling down the road together. It’s a, it has more journey in it. Friendship would be great too, but fellowship captures friendship and traveling that path together.
MB: This is down at the bottom -
JB: There we are. There’s MacKenzie, our brother in law, Steve, our friend, Danny. You don’t have to worry about checking your phone there, no radio signals down there.
MB: You know, another adventure, I guess, another opportunity for adventure and fellowship.
JB: That was a fun trip.
MB: This trip, we were out at sea for 30 days and we did this. When you’ve been out at sea for 30 days, this looks like it’s in focus. [audience laughter] So, but, why don’t you. By the way, my beard game is very strong.
JB: You’re crushing me on the beard game. I don’t even try, my beard game doesn’t even work at all. Look at that crap. This is the Recovery Expedition, we went and recovered the Apollo 11, Saturn V, F-1 engines from the bottom of the Atlantic, under 14,000 feet of water that have been resting there peacefully for more than four decades. And we did it. It was an incredible adventure, the captain, there were 60 people on the boat, including our mother, Jackie, and she was the only woman on the boat with 59 men and my mom. And when I first got on the boat, and the captain came and found me, and this is a big 300-foot boot, with a moon pool and diving submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, very high tech. The captain came, very nice, Norwegian guy, and he said, “We’ve never had a woman on the boat before, and I’ve taken the liberty of removing all of the pornography from the commons areas. And I just wanted to make sure that was okay with you.” And I was like, “Yeah, that sounds good. That’s fine.”
MB: I never did find that stash. [audience laughter] Um, and so, so we were successful. We recovered those engines. Where are they?
JB: One of them is at the Smithsonian, and one of them is at the Seattle Museum of Flight.
MB: Yeah, well, hopefully they’ll be some other five-year-old who runs into them and are inspired as you were.
JB: Yeah, they’re incredible engineered objects. I mean, still today there’s probably no rocket engine that has been more successful than the Saturn V, F-1.
MB: So, you know, one of - as I was putting this together and looking at all these pictures and thinking about the adventures that we’ve had together. And, again, knowing how much time and effort you put into Amazon, The Washington Post, and Blue Origin. And I also happen to know you’re a devoted husband, beloved father with your kids, you have a fantastic relationship.
JB: The Bezos’ have a lot of kids. He has four, I have four, our sister has three. We’re making sure that the population doesn’t go down.
MB: We need to go into space.
MB: Well, one of the - I guess - one of the questions I have is. How do you go about establishing work life balance that everybody, you know, talks about and thinks about. You live a big life, right? How do you balance it?
JB: I get this question a lot. I teach senior executives, leadership classes as Amazon, for our most senior executives. I also speak to interns, so all across the spectrum. And I get this question about work-life balance all the time, from both ends of the spectrum, and my view is I don’t even like the phrase work-life balance. I think it’s misleading. I like the phrase work-life harmony. Because I know that if I am energized at work, happy at work, feeling like I’m adding value as part of the team, whatever energizes you. That makes me better at home. It makes me a better husband, a better father. And likewise, if I’m happy at home, it makes me a better employee, a better boss, all the things. It’s not about, it’s not primarily about, there may be crunch periods, when it’s about the number of hours in the week. But that’s not the real thing. Usually, it’s about, do you have energy? Is your work depriving you of energy or is your work generating energy for you? You know, there are people, everybody in this room knows people. You fall into these two camps. You’re in a meeting, the person comes into the room. Some people come into the meeting and they add energy into the meeting. Other people come into the meeting, and the whole meeting just deflates. Some people, they drain energy from the meeting. You have to decide which types of people you’re going to be. Are you going to add energy?
MB: Same thing at home.
JB: And the same thing at home. It’s a wheel. It’s a flywheel. It’s a circle. It’s not a balance. A balance, that’s why the metaphor is so dangerous. It implies there’s a strict tradeoff. You can be out of work, have all the time for your family in the world, but really depressed and demoralized about your work situation. And your family wouldn’t want to be anywhere near you, they would wish you would take a vacation from them. And so, it’s not about the number of hours, not primarily. I suppose, if you went crazy with, you know, a 100-hours a week or something, yeah, that maybe, maybe there are limits. I’ve never had a problem, and I think it’s because both sides of my life give me energy. That’s what I would recommend, that’s what I do recommend to interns and execs.
MB: So, we’re out of time. I just want to say, first of all, thank you all for joining us around the proverbial firepit.
MB: It’s not lost on me that I’m incredibly, it brings me joy to have the opportunity to have conversations, like this with you, often. And I do cherish those opportunities.
JB: Me too, brother.
MB: Thank you very much. Thank all of you. I guess there’s just one more thing to say.
JB: We should toast.
JB/MB: To adventure and fellowship!
MB: Thank you guys.