By Ian Salisbury
April 20, 2018

Jeff Bezos wants you to know what it takes to be as successful as he is, and as dominant as Amazon. He also wants you to know that PowerPoint is lame — and that handstands are really hard.

This week, the Amazon chief executive released his annual letters to shareholders, hyping the online retailer’s business results and musing about the secrets to Amazon’s success and some of its quirkier business practices.

If you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here. But here are a few of the highlights.

Success is all about high standards.

How does Amazon “stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectation”? Bezos says there is no single answer but that having “high standards” — the italics are his — is a big part of it.

Of course, that’s pretty intuitive. But he goes on to elaborate on what is and is not necessary.

High standards are ‘teachable’ and ‘domain specific.’

If high standards are the key to success, as Bezos suggests, there is good news and bad news for the rest of us. The good news is that high standards are “teachable.” “High standards are contagious,” Bezos contends. “Bring a new person onto a high standards team and they will quickly adapt.”

The bad news is that having high standards in one area of your life doesn’t mean you have them in others. He gives himself as an example: “When I started Amazon I had high standards on inventing, on customer care, and (thankfully) on hiring. But I didn’t have high standards on operational process: how to keep fixed problems fixed,” for example.

High standards require ‘recognition and scope.’

How do you achieve high standards in a particular domain? “First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain,” he writes; “second you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result — the scope.” (Again, the emphasis is Bezos’s.)

And that brings us to handstands.

So what exactly do handstands have to do with all of this? What often gets in the way of having impeccably high standards, Bezos says, is that a lot of stuff is hard. And when people set goals for themselves (or for others, as Bezos does in his role as CEO), they don’t always recognize just how hard a challenge might be — and how much work it will take to meet it.

This lesson was driven home for Bezos when one his friends hired a handstand coach to improve her Instagram game. (Apparently this a real thing that rich people do.)

In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said. “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.

Writing is like doing handstands — that is, it’s really hard.

Writing in a way that smartly and succinctly communicates your ideas to others is also really difficult. That’s a problem at Amazon, according to Bezos, because “we don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations.” Instead, employees communicate through “narratively structured six-page memos.”

Unfortunately, he seems to suggest, a lot of people seem to think they can just toss off a six-page memo in a day or so, or even in a few hours. And the result is something mediocre. Instead, Bezos thinks memos are much better when people spend weeks working on them. And he believes we would probably do a lot of things better if we approached them with a clearer idea of how much effort they took.

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!…The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. They key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

What you don’t necessarily need for success is skill.

Bezos ends his prologue — before he gets into the details of Amazon’s performance — on a reassuring note. What you don’t necessarily need is skill, especially if you are part of a team.

“The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act,” he says. “But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”

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