Always Day 1

If you haven’t read Jeff Bezos’s 2016 Letter to Shareholders yet, I highly recommend it.

Here’s how it starts —

“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?”

That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

I’m interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?

The letter goes on to make some very lucid points about orienting a business culture around the demands of capital at scale — the hungry and machine-like purity of directness and speed that emerge from the body of his comments where he describes maintaining true customer focus, resisting proxies, adopting external trends and making quality decisions quickly.

But it’s really the intro, the simplicity of this black-and-white Day 1 vs. Day 2 corporate lifecycle model that I find the most powerful. It’s simultaneously ridiculous and remarkably genius.

It’s ridiculous because there’s no such thing as infinite growth. Eventually Amazon’s corporate culture will decay and the stock price will revert the market mean. This is about as certain as certain can possibly get. Of course the real question is: when exactly will the growth stop?

But this mental approach is genius. Here is is asking his employees to close their eyes and live every day like it’s Day 1 — an infinite series of Day 1s, where tomorrow is Day 1 too! He has encouraged them to develop simplicity and openness and forgiveness and curiosity as habits. In this frame of mind there is no room for second-guessing or long rehearsals of objections. There is only experiments and deciding and doing. Tomorrow is another day. I imagine that a whole collection of people like this could potentially form an amazing growth-oriented culture that could push off the inevitability of collapse for who-knows how long.

One of my favorite stories from Michael Lewis’s Moneyball is the moment where the phenomenally talented major-league baseball player Billy Beane realizes he is struggling at bat because the accumulating memories of his past mistakes are making him more and more indecisive at the plate. He’s thinking too much. And by contrast he can see that his much less physically and intellectually gifted teammate — John Kruk — is finding success because he has this childlike ability to wipe past at-bats from his mind and just take every pitch like it was the first one he’d ever seen.

Amazon is famous being a super-startup company that has yet to realize a profit, for living in a suspended state of corporate pre-history. And there are a lot of people very curious to see how long this kind of company can hold out. From this 2016 shareholder letter I think we have our answer: its pretty obvious to me that Bezos will only acknowledge history and start taking those profits on Day 2.

When Self-Aware Is All You Got

I had lunch today with a friend who had seen The End of the Tour — which I have not seen — and he asked me if he should read David Foster Wallace.

Ugh. I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. My only credential is that I think I’ve tried to read everything he’s ever written, and I’ve never gotten even 50 pages deep in any of it. Except for Consider The Lobster, which I did manage to crack 100 pages, but that was for a book club where I take pride in finishing everything.

So you can imagine that my endorsement of the DFW was pretty weak. I think I said things like painfully self-indulgent and self-absorbed, and that I just got bored of him quickly. I went on like that for a while.

What I did end up telling was the counter-story for my big meh on Wallace: the story of how I’ve hated Annie Proulx for many years based on the insane hype from The Shipping News, how I found her realism tedious and her narrative focus so stilted and narrow that she bored me, and then how being forced to read Close Range and then Postcards (book club again!) later in life I completely reversed my view and have fallen in love with her work. I think I get her now, her spareness and subtlety and patience. Her quietness.

I guess on the DFW front it’s probably fair to say that I’m in some kind waiting mode. I may get the revelation. Lord knows I have a few of these dudes I’ve been circling (ahem, Pynchon..).

But today after reading Deirdre Coyle’s Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me I think I’m unlikely to turn the Annie Proulx corner on the old four-eyed raghead any time soon.

Who Before Why

Me and 31 million other viewers are fans of Sinek’s Golden Circle TED talk. I watch it every few months when I feel stuck on What-ness and need some perspective. Dude talks fast and when you slow him down some of what he says makes more emotional sense than actual logical sense, but I do find his focus on understanding the “why am I making this thing?” a great clarifying exercise.

I recently came across Lex Sisney’s comments on the Golden Circle and I think I agree with him — that there’s a hidden Who in the middle of Sinek’s Golden Circle that makes it more useful to me, especially for the purposes of thinking through product design.

And from a writing perspective — communicating in general — I know the first question is really “who is your audience?”

Generally I think the Who question for most applications helps me avoid some of the navel-gazing that comes with spending too long on the Why. And I guess when you think about it, the What question gets opened up by How. And How gets loosened up by the Why. And with Sisney’s improvement the Who unfolds the model one layer deeper.