No Pain, No Gain at Amazon

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

Starting at Amazon was hard. It’s not that anyone hazed me—the people were really nice. And it’s not like I was working crazy hours—I’ve worked much longer hours in consulting. It was hard because I was out of shape.

When I started, I was amazed at the people around me. They were able to get so much done! Amazon hires great people but it’s more than that. Amazon teaches people how to continually improve and learn. Starting at Amazon means getting into “learning shape.”

I wasn’t used to this. Most people aren’t. At my previous jobs, the goal was to get my job done, follow the process, and meet my annual targets. At Amazon, I needed to do all of this, but I also needed to continually improve myself. It’s like going to the gym. My boss even told me that working at Amazon is about building up your muscles.

When you go to the gym, it hurts. You’re breaking down your muscles at each workout and they come back stronger. When you’re out of shape, the pain you feel the first days is the worst. At Amazon, it’s not a workout for your body but a workout for your mind.

At Amazon, we’re obsessed at meeting the needs of our customers. We know that our customers will never be satisfied; therefore, everyone needs to continuously improve and learn new things.

“This is a phenomenal thing!” you might say. I want to keep learning. I LOVE learning. But when was the last time you really “did learning.” Maybe in college? But you’ve probably forgotten how hard it is to learn. Learning is about getting B’s and C’s before you get an A. At most companies you’re supposed to get an A on every presentation that you do. But learning is about making mistakes. Learning hurts. In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch summed it up well, saying, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.” It’s not fun but it’s true.

Professor Carol Dweck has a good model for the way Amazon differs from other companies. She describes two mindsets, the growth mindset (which is similar to Amazon) and the fixed mindset (similar to most companies).

The Growth (Amazon) Mindset

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. You’re always learning, getting better and adapting to the changing world. Failure is something to learn from, not a judgment of your capabilities or worth as a human being.

People with a growth mindset know that life provides you with many opportunities to improve. They know that it’s not worth worrying about the past and hoping they can fix it. Instead, they focus on learning from experiences (and even seeking experiences) where they don’t perform perfectly.

This all sounds great in theory but it’s a bit scary in practice. Take Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’s approach to raising their kids. They wanted to make sure that their kids can create and learn as much as possible so they give their kids access to the best tools. This means letting their kids use sharp knives at age 4 and certain power tools at 7 or 8. Why? MacKenzie said, “I’d much rather have a kid with 9 fingers than a resourceless kid.”

Fixed (Typical Company) Mindset

People with a fixed Mindset assume that they are born with a fixed set of capabilities (e.g., intelligence, creativity, artistic ability) at birth. Because these qualities are carved in stone, life is a series of tests to see how strong these capabilities really are. People with a fixed mindset think that you can’t work to achieve something you’re not born with. For example, they might think that the only “real” coders are those with computer science degrees. In the story of The Tortoise and the Hare, they would hire the naturally talented hare, not the hardworking tortoise.

People (and companies) with a fixed mindset are afraid to fail. Failure is a mark against you, showing that you are less capable than before. These companies say, “Why will we promote the person who fails? We only want successful people here!”

For those of you that like pictures, there’s a great summary of the two mindsets, but I like this tweeted cartoon the best:

At Amazon, we call the growth mindset “Day 1.” In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos talked a lot about the Day 1 (growth) mindset at Amazon and what happens when you move away from that and into a Day 2 (fixed) mindset.

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.

There’s No Compression Algorithm for Experience

The problem with the growth mindset is that it’s hard. You have to try your hardest and be willing to fail. Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services says, “There is no compression algorithm for experience. You can’t learn certain lessons without going through the curve”. Because it’s hard, large companies try to take shortcuts.

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Jeff talks about how big companies tend to use proxies instead of focusing on what’s really needed—meeting customer needs.

Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.

Large companies might use these shortcuts rather than focusing on learning. One example is an innovation lab that spends tens of millions of dollars experimenting with technology so the company can say, “We are a very innovative company.“ However, these innovations rarely make it out of the lab to serve customers.

But the most insidious version of the shortcut cuts to the heart of the growth mindset. It’s the corporate view towards failure. In order to be successful, companies can’t be afraid to fail. Jeff talks about this a lot. However, a lot of companies use failure as a proxy for innovation and actually court it. I had a previous boss who said, “We should be failing a third of the time or we’re not trying hard enough.”

Failing is not an inherently good thing in a company. We should not be looking at failure as something that we want to do. However, we have to be looking at failure as an inherent aspect of growth. Real failure is painful. In order to grow, you need to try your hardest, get knocked down, and get up again. It’s hard but it’s the only way to grow.

How it Might Feel

If you don’t take the right perspective, it feels like you’re failing and you might even feel like a failure. At a regular job, if you get 90% of your job done you’re doing great. If you get 110% of your job done you’re amazing. But at Amazon, you have the ability to do 300% of what you’ve normally done. If you can get 70% of that done, you’re still at 210%. So the question is, do you want to feel good that you’ve accomplished 95% or get to that 210% (which feels like 70%).

But It’s Worth It

Working at Amazon is about being a leader—and being a leader is hard. Things are never finished. Once you’ve solved one customer need, you’ve immediately got another one to fix. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun and worthwhile. Just like at the gym, you come out of it stronger and more powerful. Leadership takes courage and a willingness to fail. Take it from Teddy Roosevelt who said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.