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If you like Jeff Bezos's story, you might also like:
Timothy Berners-Lee,
Stephen Case,
Michael Dell,
Michael Eisner,
Lawrence Ellison,
Bill Gates,
John Hennessy,
Reid Hoffman,
Ray Kurzweil,
Craig McCaw,
Pierre Omidyar,
Larry Page,
George Rathmann,
Fred Smith and
Ted Turner

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Jeff Bezos's recommended reading: A Wrinkle in Time

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Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos
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Jeff Bezos Interview (page: 6 / 6)

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  Jeff Bezos

In your life have you ever considered giving up something you were doing?

Jeff Bezos Interview Photo
Jeff Bezos: Well, I gave up trying to be a great physicist and I'll tell you, that was very difficult for me. I mean, it's something that I had my sights set on for a long time, and it was a harsh realization that there were these awe-inspiring people whose brains were just wired differently. So, yeah, sure.

Looking ahead, is there some idea or problem or challenge that interests you?

Jeff Bezos: On a personal level, very interested in exploration of space. Since I was a little kid I have always been interested. When I was at Princeton I was president of SEDS, which stands for Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. If I ever get the chance I'd like to go investigate the moon and Mars and tool around our solar system a little bit. I don't know if I'll ever get that chance. It's technically a very hard problem.

If a young person came to you for advice, "How do I make the most out of my life?" what would you say to them?

Jeff Bezos: Do something you're very passionate about, and don't try to chase what is kind of the 'hot passion' of the day. I think we actually saw this. I think you see it all over the place in many different contexts, but I think we saw it in the Internet world quite a bit, where, at sort of the peak of the Internet mania in -- say 1999 -- you found people who were very passionate of something, and they kind of left that job and decided, "I'm going to do something on the Internet because it's almost like the 1849 Gold Rush in a way." I mean, you find that people -- if you go back and study the history of the 1949 Gold Rush you find that, at that time, everybody who was within shouting distance of California was -- you know, they might have been a doctor, but they quit being a doctor and they started panning for gold, and that almost never works. And, even if it does work, according to some metric, financial success, or whatever it might be, I suspect it leaves you ultimately unsatisfied. So, you really need to be very clear with yourself. And I think one of the best ways to do that is this notion of projecting yourself forward to age 80, looking back on your life, and trying to make sure you've minimized the number of regrets you have. That works for career decisions. It works for family decisions. I have a 14-month old son, and it's very easy for me to -- if I think about myself when I'm 80, I know I want to watch that little guy grow up, and so it's -- I don't want to be 80 and think, "Shoot! You know, I missed that whole thing, and I don't have the kind of relationship with my son that I wished I had," and so on and so on.

Another thing that I would recommend to people is that they always take a long-term point of view. I think this is something about which there's a lot of controversy. A lot of people -- and I'm just not one of them -- believe that you should live for the now. I think what you do is think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you're planning for that in a way that's going to leave you ultimately satisfied. This is the way it works for me. There are a lot of paths to satisfaction and you need to find one that works for you.

What kind of responsibility goes along with the kind of success you've had?

Jeff Bezos: If you are a lottery winner, as I am, then one of the things that you get a chance to do at some point in your life is to be a philanthropist and so, I didn't grow up hoping, "Boy! Maybe I'll be a philanthropist one day!" That wasn't ever on my list of archeologist, astronaut, those things I wanted to be. Physicist. I think in large part because I never expected to have the means to be a philanthropist, but I think that if you win a lottery of this kind of size, that one of the things that, over time, you have an obligation to do, is to think about the ways that that wealth can be used in a highly leveraged way. I also think, by the way, it's really easy to give away money in highly unleveraged ways where it's just a waste of money and I suspect that it takes as much time, energy, focus and hard work to effectively give away money as it does to get it in the first place.

What's important to you and why?

Jeff Bezos: I think one of the things that's most important to me is one of the notions that the United States was founded on, and that is liberty. It's a very difficult thing. There's lots of very interesting stuff to think about in this regard, and it just so happens that a free market economy, sort of a capitalist system, has a lot of liberty mixed in with it.

We all get to decide how we're going to go about making our own living and so on and so on. That happens to also be a very effective way of deploying an economy so that you get an economy which mostly makes sense. You know, things mysteriously -- because of that invisible hand -- tend to work out. I remember there was a time -- I may have these statistics slightly wrong -- a few years ago there was a heat wave in the South that killed three percent of chickens, and I think egg prices doubled because there were three percent fewer chickens. Well, that means that the number of chickens is roughly right, even though there's nobody deciding how many chickens there should be. So, that is a very interesting fact, I think, that a free market economy -- which by necessity involves a lot of liberty -- just happens to work well in terms of allocating resources. But, imagine a different world. Imagine a world where some incredibly artificially intelligent computer could actually do a better job than the invisible hand of allocating resources, and were to say, "There shouldn't be this many chickens, there should be this many chickens," just a few more or a few less. Well, that might even lead to more aggregate wealth. So, it might be a society that if you give up liberty, everybody could be a little wealthier. Now, the question that I would pose is, if that turned out to be the world, "Is that a good trade?" Personally, I don't think so. Personally I think it would be a terrible trade. And, I sometimes worry about that, because I think it's a coincidence that liberty tends to do such a good job of creating an economy that functions well.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Do you have any concerns about what role the computer may play in our lives in the years ahead?

Jeff Bezos: Not the computer per se, but I do often have concerns about the role that technology more generally may play in the years ahead.

You know, if you look over long periods of time, look over hundreds of years, and look at the average sort of life cycle of a new technology, what you find is that it's getting compressed and compressed and compressed, so the rate of change is getting faster and faster. Every decade that goes by, there's more important discoveries per unit time than there were in the previous decade. And, a lot of these discoveries tend to have two uses. I mean, technologies tend to be agnostic with respect to whether they can be used for good or used for evil. I think that over the next 50 years we are going to face a lot of very tough decisions as a society in how we make sure that we are harnessing those technologies for good purposes.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Jeff Bezos: I think I already answered it, because I think the American Dream is about liberty. But I'll add one other thing to what I said earlier. Liberty, giving people the freedom to do what they want -- as long as they're not hurting somebody else -- is super important. I think it's the core essence of the American Dream. I think at times we as a people get confused about it.

I think people should carefully reread the first part of the Declaration of Independence, because I think sometimes we as a society start to get confused and think that we have a right to happiness, but if you read the Declaration of Independence, it talks about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Nobody has a right to happiness. You should have a right to pursue it, and I think the core of that is liberty.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Thank you very much.

It has been my pleasure.

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This page last revised on Nov 26, 2013 01:54 EDT
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