If an oyster keeps all the sand out of his shell, he lives a life of comfort. At the end of his life, you find a dead oyster… in an empty shell.
If a grain of sand enters the oyster’s shell, he loses his life of comfort. In order to protect himself from irritation, the oyster will begin covering the sand with layers of nacre. Layer upon layer cover the grain of sand until the pearl is formed.
When an oyster is bothered by a grain of sand, it creates a pearl.
If the oyster lives this uncomfortable period in their life, at the end of his life you find more than a dead oyster… you find a pearl.
Don’t wish for less problems.
Our problems allow us to create our pearls. When we remove challenge from our life, we remove growth from our life.
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain. As it tires, your brain looks for shortcuts. The 2 most common decision avoidance tactics are:
to act impulsively (without seeing the consequences of the decision)
to procrastinate (do nothing)
Taking decisions takes willpower. Willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted. It is like a muscle that gets fatigued with use.
There are a limited number of good decisions that one can take in a day. You might be a more effective decision maker than those around you, but you will still have a finite limit on the number of good decisions you can take in a day.
How do you Ration your decision making?
In the toughest days of my life as a CEO – dealing with the fallout from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the collapse in bank lending at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, I hit my limits of decision fatigue. In order to get through the weeks and have energy to deal with the things that would allow us as a business to get through these tough times, I rationed my decision making.
The first step was to specify when and where I would take decisions. (Initially… when: on a Friday; where: only in my office). Previously my team would approach me at any time in the day, over coffee, over lunch, via email, via sms to request budget for small projects or permission to do some new activity. I felt responsable as leader for providing an immediate answer. It was killing me and leaving me with no energy to dedicate to building our future once we survived the immediate crisis.
“That’s great, bring it on Friday…”
I decided that I would take all budget decisions on a Friday between 9-12. If someone came to me with a request, I learnt to say “that’s great, bring it on Friday and we can take a decision”. It was hard at first, people were frustrated and angry and didn’t like my lack of willingness to engage at the time and place that they wanted. Over the following months, the people around me learnt to plan ahead and bring the information necessary to take a good decision on the Friday before they needed the decision.
It gave me peace at lunchtimes, in the break area, even in my office when someone opened the door on a Tuesday. It was a challenge to remove my sense of responsibility to decide at all moments. I learnt to be able to have a conversation where I could contribute ideas, but allow it to be clear that no final decision would be taken during this discussion.
When One decision is not really One decision…
My wife realised that one of her struggles with going to the gym is that it was never just one single decision. Each trip to the gym was a series of decisions: do I change at home or at the gym? do I shower at the gym or at home? will I eat there or not? which t-shirt will I bring? which trainers will I use today? which bag will I use? As the idea of gym came up, her brain knew that it would be exhausted by the series of 20 decisions. Her solution? She wrote down all the questions that she used to ask herself and wrote the answers. She make going to the gym become one simple decision, with a written template of pre-decided answers (shower=yes, trainers=blue, eat=there…)
In Vistage one of the first processes of change that we see in a new CEO member, is a greater awareness of which decisions they should be taking and which decisions they should not be taking.
Are you taking €10,000 decisions, €100 decisions or €1 decisions?
If you are taking the €1 decisions, your brain’s decision willpower will be depleted before lunchtime.
If you are taking the €1 decisions, your €10,000 decisions will not be receiving the analysis and impact that they deserve.
Jack Welch spoke about the size of decisions that he allowed himself to be taking. GE is a multi-billion business. As leader Jack allowed himself to only be taking decisions that could affect at least $50M of the market capitalisation.
Steve Jobs is famous for having a wardrobe full of identical blue jeans and black t-shirts. It was not a fashion decision, it was a conservation of decision willpower for the important decisions of Apple. Barrack Obama speaks about a similar challenge as President of the USA. He set up a structure around him that ensured that he would take no more than 5 important leadership decisions in a day.
The Structure of Leadership Decision Making
The Vistage Decision Model captures 60 years of experience of working with CEOs as they take operational and strategic decisions to lead their companies and their lives. There are 3 levels of Decision “skill” – Instinct, Judgement and Perspectives. There are 5 areas of leadership decision: Talent, Operations, Financials, Customers and Leadership Style.
The American Customer Satisfaction Index recently announced the results of its annual survey, and for the 8th year in a row customers ranked Amazon #1. The United Kingdom has a similar index, The U.K. Customer Satisfaction Index, put out by the Institute of Customer Service. For the 5th time in a row Amazon U.K. ranked #1 in that survey. Amazon was also just named the #1 business on LinkedIn’s 2018 Top Companies list, which ranks the most sought after places to work for professionals in the United States. And just a few weeks ago, Harris Poll released its annual Reputation Quotient, which surveys over 25,000 consumers on a broad range of topics from workplace environment to social responsibility to products and services, and for the 3rd year in a row Amazon ranked #1.
Congratulations and thank you to the now over 560,000 Amazonians who come to work every day with unrelenting customer obsession, ingenuity, and commitment to operational excellence. And on behalf of Amazonians everywhere, I want to extend a huge thank you to customers. It’s incredibly energizing for us to see your responses to these surveys.
One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’. I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before. It may be because customers have such easy access to more information than ever before – in only a few seconds and with a couple taps on their phones, customers can read reviews, compare prices from multiple retailers, see whether something’s in stock, find out how fast it will ship or be available for pick-up, and more. These examples are from retail, but I sense that the same customer empowerment phenomenon is happening broadly across everything we do at Amazon and most other industries as well. You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.
How do you stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectations? There’s no single way to do it – it’s a combination of many things. But high standards (widely deployed and at all levels of detail) are certainly a big part of it. We’ve had some successes over the years in our quest to meet the high expectations of customers. We’ve also had billions of dollars’ worth of failures along the way. With those experiences as backdrop, I’d like to share with you the essentials of what we’ve learned (so far) about high standards inside an organization.
Intrinsic or Teachable?
First, there’s a foundational question: are high standards intrinsic or teachable? If you take me on your basketball team, you can teach me many things, but you can’t teach me to be taller. Do we first and foremost need to select for “high standards” people? If so, this letter would need to be mostly about hiring practices, but I don’t think so. I believe high standards are teachable. In fact, people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread. And though exposure works well to teach high standards, I believe you can accelerate that rate of learning by articulating a few core principles of high standards, which I hope to share in this letter.
Universal or Domain Specific?
Another important question is whether high standards are universal or domain specific. In other words, if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest. 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, how to eliminate defects at the root, how to inspect processes, and much more. I had to learn and develop high standards on all of that (my colleagues were my tutors).
Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood.
Recognition and Scope
What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope.
Let me give you two examples. One is a sort of toy illustration but it makes the point clearly, and another is a real one that comes up at Amazon all the time.
A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. 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.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.
We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structuredsix-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. 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! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. 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. The 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.
Beyond recognizing the standard and having realistic expectations on scope, how about skill? Surely to write a world class memo, you have to be an extremely skilled writer? Is it another required element? In my view, not so much, at least not for the individual in the context of teams. The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope. Even in the example of writing a six-page memo, that’s
teamwork. Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you. (As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos – the memo is from the whole team.)
Benefits of High Standards
Building a culture of high standards is well worth the effort, and there are many benefits. Naturally and most obviously, you’re going to build better products and services for customers – this would be reason enough! Perhaps a little less obvious: people are drawn to high standards – they help with recruiting and retention. More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the “invisible” but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward – it’s part of what it means to be a professional.
And finally, high standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back.
So, the four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope. For us, these work at all levels of detail. Everything from writing memos to whole new, clean-sheet business initiatives. We hope they help you too.
Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high.
— from the Amazon Leadership Principles
The high standards our leaders strive for have served us well. And while I certainly can’t do a handstand myself, I’m extremely proud to share some of the milestones we hit last year, each of which represents the fruition of many years of collective effort. We take none of them for granted.
Prime – 13 years post-launch, we have exceeded 100 million paid Prime members globally. In 2017 Amazon shipped more than five billion items with Prime worldwide, and more new members joined Prime than in any previous year – both worldwide and in the U.S. Members in the U.S. now receive unlimited free two-day shipping on over 100 million different items. We expanded Prime to Mexico, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and introduced Business Prime Shipping in the U.S. and Germany. We keep making Prime shipping faster as well, with Prime Free Same-Day and Prime Free One-Day delivery now in more than 8,000 cities and towns. Prime Now is available in more than 50 cities worldwide across nine countries. Prime Day 2017 was our biggest global shopping event ever (until surpassed by Cyber Monday), with more new Prime members joining Prime than any other day in our history.
AWS – It’s exciting to see Amazon Web Services, a $20 billion revenue run rate business, accelerate its already healthy growth. AWS has also accelerated its pace of innovation – especially in new areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and serverless computing. In 2017, AWS announced more than 1,400 significant services and features, including Amazon SageMaker, which radically changes the accessibility and ease of use for everyday developers to build sophisticated machine learning models. Tens of thousands of customers are also using a broad range of AWS machine learning services, with active users increasing more than 250 percent in the last year, spurred by the broad adoption of Amazon SageMaker. And in November, we held our sixth re:Invent conference with more than 40,000 attendees and over 60,000 streaming participants.
Marketplace – In 2017, for the first time in our history, more than half of the units sold on Amazon worldwide were from our third-party sellers, including small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Over 300,000 U.S.-based SMBs started selling on Amazon in 2017, and Fulfillment by Amazon shipped billions of items for SMBs worldwide. Customers ordered more than 40 million items from SMBs worldwide during Prime Day 2017, growing their sales by more than 60 percent over Prime Day 2016. Our Global Selling program (enabling SMBs to sell products across national borders) grew by over 50% in 2017 and cross-border ecommerce by SMBs now represents more than 25% of total third-party sales.
Alexa – Customer embrace of Alexa continues, with Alexa-enabled devices among the best-selling items across all of Amazon. We’re seeing extremely strong adoption by other companies and developers that want to create their own experiences with Alexa. There are now more than 30,000 skills for Alexa from outside developers, and customers can control more than 4,000 smart home devices from 1,200 unique brands with Alexa. The foundations of Alexa continue to get smarter every day too. We’ve developed and implemented an on-devicefingerprinting technique, which keeps your device from waking up when it hears an Alexa commercial on TV. (This technology ensured that our Alexa Super Bowl commercial didn’t wake up millions of devices.) Far-fieldspeech recognition (already very good) has improved by 15% over the last year; and in the U.S., U.K., and Germany, we’ve improved Alexa’s spoken language understanding by more than 25% over the last 12 months through enhancements in Alexa’s machine learning components and the use of semi-supervised learning techniques. (These semi-supervised learning techniques reduced the amount of labeled data needed to achieve the same accuracy improvement by 40 times!) Finally, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of time required to teach Alexa new languages by using machine translation and transfer learning techniques, which allows us to serve customers in more countries (like India and Japan).
Amazon devices – 2017 was our best year yet for hardware sales. Customers bought tens of millions of Echo devices, and Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick with Alexa were the best-selling products across all of Amazon – across all categories and all manufacturers. Customers bought twice as many Fire TV Sticks and Kids Edition Fire Tablets this holiday season versus last year. 2017 marked the release of our all-new Echo with an improved design, better sound, and a lower price; Echo Plus with a built-in smart home hub; and Echo Spot, which is compact and beautiful with a circular screen. We released our next generation Fire TV, featuring 4K Ultra HD and HDR; and the Fire HD 10 Tablet, with 1080p Full HD display. And we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Kindle by releasing the all-new Kindle Oasis, our most advanced reader ever. It’s waterproof – take it in the bathtub – with a bigger 7” high-resolution 300 ppi display and has built-in audio so you can also listen to your books with Audible.
Prime Video – Prime Video continues to drive Prime member adoption and retention. In the last year we made Prime Video even better for customers by adding new, award-winning Prime Originals to the service, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, winner of two Critics’ Choice Awards and two Golden Globes, and the Oscar-nominated movie The Big Sick. We’ve expanded our slate of programming across the globe, launching new seasons of Bosch and Sneaky Pete from the U.S., The Grand Tour from the U.K., and You Are Wanted from Germany, while adding new Sentosha shows from Japan, along with Breathe and the award-winning Inside Edge from India. Also this year, we expanded our Prime Channels offerings, adding CBS All Access in the U.S. and launching Channels in the U.K. and Germany. We debuted NFL Thursday Night Football on Prime Video, with more than 18 million total viewers over 11 games. In 2017, Prime Video Direct secured subscription video rights for more than 3,000 feature films and committed over $18 million in royalties to independent filmmakers and other rights holders. Looking forward, we’re also excited about our upcoming Prime Original series pipeline, which includes Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan starring John Krasinski; King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson; The Romanoffs, executive produced by Matt Weiner; Carnival Row starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne; Good Omens starring Jon Hamm; and Homecoming, executive produced by Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts in her first television series. We acquired the global television rights for a multi-season production of The Lord of the Rings, as well as Cortés, a miniseries based on the epic saga of Hernán Cortés from executive producer Steven Spielberg, starring Javier Bardem, and we look forward to beginning work on those shows this year.
Amazon Music – Amazon Music continues to grow fast and now has tens of millions of paid customers. Amazon Music Unlimited, our on-demand, ad-free offering, expanded to more than 30 new countries in 2017, and membership has more than doubled over the past six months.
Fashion – Amazon has become the destination for tens of millions of customers to shop for fashion. In 2017, we introduced our first fashion-oriented Prime benefit, Prime Wardrobe – a new service that brings the fitting room directly to the homes of Prime members so they can try on the latest styles before they buy. We introduced Nike and UGG on Amazon along with new celebrity collections by Drew Barrymore and Dwyane Wade, as well as dozens of new private brands, like Goodthreads and
Core10. We’re also continuing to enable thousands of designers and artists to offer their exclusive designs and prints on demand through Merch by Amazon. We finished 2017 with the launch of our interactive shopping experience with Calvin Klein, including pop-up shops, on-site product customization, and fitting rooms with Alexa-controlled lighting, music, and more.
Whole Foods – When we closed our acquisition of Whole Foods Market last year, we announced our commitment to making high-quality, natural and organic food available for everyone, then immediately lowered prices on a selection of best-selling grocery staples, including avocados, organic brown eggs, and responsibly-farmed salmon. We followed this with a second round of price reductions in November, and our Prime member exclusive promotion broke Whole Foods’ all-time record for turkeys sold during the Thanksgiving season. In February, we introduced free two-hour delivery on orders over $35 for Prime members in select cities, followed by additional cities in March and April, and plan continued expansion across the U.S. throughout this year. We also expanded the benefits of the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card, enabling Prime members to get 5% back when shopping at Whole Foods Market. Beyond that, customers can purchase Whole Foods’ private label products like 365 Everyday Value on Amazon, purchase Echo and other Amazon devices in over a hundred Whole Foods stores, and pick-up or return Amazon packages at Amazon Lockers in hundreds of Whole Foods stores. We’ve also begun the technical work needed to recognize Prime members at the point of sale and look forward to offering more Prime benefits to Whole Foods shoppers once that work is completed.
Amazon Go – Amazon Go, a new kind of store with no checkout required, opened to the public in January in Seattle. Since opening, we’ve been thrilled to hear many customers refer to their shopping experience as “magical.” What makes the magic possible is a custom-built combination of computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning, which come together to create Just Walk Out shopping. With JWO, customers are able to grab their favorite breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and grocery essentials more conveniently than ever before. Some of our top-selling items are not surprising – caffeinated beverages and water are popular – but our customers also love the Chicken Banh Mi sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, cut fruit, gummy bears, and our Amazon Meal Kits.
Treasure Truck – Treasure Truck expanded from a single truck in Seattle to a fleet of 35 trucks across 25 U.S. cities and 12 U.K. cities. Our bubble-blowing, music-pumping trucks fulfilled hundreds of thousands of orders, from porterhouse steaks to the latest Nintendo releases. Throughout the year, Treasure Truck also partnered with local communities to lift spirits and help those in need, including donating and delivering hundreds of car seats, thousands of toys, tens of thousands of socks, and many other essentials to community members needing relief, from those displaced by Hurricane Harvey, to the homeless, to kids needing holiday cheer.
India – Amazon.in is the fastest growing marketplace in India, and the most visited site on both desktop and mobile, according to comScore and SimilarWeb. The Amazon.in mobile shopping app was also the most downloaded shopping app in India in 2017, according to App Annie. Prime added more members in India in its first year than any previous geography in Amazon’s history. Prime selection in India now includes more than 40 million local products from third-party sellers, and Prime Video is investing in India original video content in a big way, including two recent premiers and over a dozen new shows in production.
Sustainability – We are committed to minimizing carbon emissions by optimizing our transportation network, improving product packaging, and enhancing energy efficiency in our operations, and we have a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy. We recently launched Amazon Wind Farm Texas, our largest wind farm yet, which generates more than 1,000,000 megawatt hours of clean energy annually from over 100 turbines. We have plans to host solar energy systems at 50 fulfillment centers by 2020, and have launched 24 wind and solar projects across the U.S. with more than 29 additional projects to come. Together, Amazon’s renewable energy projects now produce enough clean energy to power over 330,000 homes annually. In 2017 we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Frustration-Free Packaging, the first of a suite of sustainable packaging initiatives that have eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials over the past 10 years. In addition, in 2017 alone our programs significantly reduced packaging waste, eliminating the
equivalent of 305 million shipping boxes. And across the world, Amazon is contracting with our service providers to launch our first low-pollution last-mile fleet. Already today, a portion of our European delivery fleet is comprised of low-pollution electric and natural gas vans and cars, and we have over 40 electric scooters and e-cargo bikes that complete local urban deliveries.
Empowering Small Business – Millions of small and medium-sized businesses worldwide now sell their products through Amazon to reach new customers around the globe. SMBs selling on Amazon come from every state in the U.S., and from more than 130 different countries around the world. More than 140,000 SMBs surpassed $100,000 in sales on Amazon in 2017, and over a thousand independent authors surpassed $100,000 in royalties in 2017 through Kindle Direct Publishing.
Investment & Job Creation – Since 2011, we have invested over $150 billion worldwide in our fulfillment networks, transportation capabilities, and technology infrastructure, including AWS data centers. Amazon has created over 1.7 million direct and indirect jobs around the world. In 2017 alone, we directly created more than 130,000 new Amazon jobs, not including acquisitions, bringing our global employee base to over 560,000. Our new jobs cover a wide range of professions, from artificial intelligence scientists to packaging specialists to fulfillment center associates. In addition to these direct hires, we estimate that Amazon Marketplace has created 900,000 more jobs worldwide, and that Amazon’s investments have created an additional 260,000 jobs in areas like construction, logistics, and other professional services.
Career Choice – One employee program we’re particularly proud of is Amazon Career Choice. For hourly associates with more than one year of tenure, we pre-pay 95% of tuition, fees, and textbooks (up to $12,000) for certificates and associate degrees in high-demand occupations such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies, and nursing. We fund education in areas that are in high demand and do so regardless of whether those skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. Globally more than 16,000 associates (including more than 12,000 in the U.S.) have joined Career Choice since the program launched in 2012. Career Choice is live in ten countries and expanding to South Africa, Costa Rica, and Slovakia later this year. Commercial truck driving, healthcare, and information technology are the program’s most popular fields of study. We’ve built 39 Career Choice classrooms so far, and we locate them behind glass walls in high traffic areas inside our fulfillment centers so associates can be inspired by seeing their peers pursue new skills.
The credit for these milestones is deserved by many. Amazon is 560,000 employees. It’s also 2 million sellers, hundreds of thousands of authors, millions of AWS developers, and hundreds of millions of divinely discontent customers around the world who push to make us better each and every day.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of our first shareholder letter, and our core values and approach remain unchanged. We continue to aspire to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, and we recognize this to be no small or easy challenge. We know there is much we can do better, and we find tremendous energy in the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
A huge thank you to each and every customer for allowing us to serve you, to our shareowners for your support, and to Amazonians everywhere for your ingenuity, your passion, and your high standards.
As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. It remains Day 1.
I'd love you to leave a comment and tell me the answer to this question: Who is the most enthusiastic person that you know?
Last night, I asked a retired inspector of schools: “What makes a great school?”
His answer… “Music.”
He said that infallibly he would find a thriving musical scene in every great school that he had visited.
When you are surrounded by enthusiastic people, you are willing to take risks and learn; brave tries are celebrated. When you are surrounded by cynics and apathetic people you don’t take risks and any effort at bravery is laughed at and mocked.
On Friday I attended the YouTube Creators day in Barcelona. It struck me just how powerful a room full of enthusiastic people can be. There was no cynicism and no apathy. All efforts at Learning, trying and courage to take risks were celebrated.
Kilian Jornet, 29, is widely considered the world’s best ultra-distance and mountain runner. Last month, he conquered Mount Everest twice in one week without using supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes. A project called Summits of My Life has taken him to the peaks of Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Denali and Aconcagua. Here’s 3 videos of Kilian in the mountains with his friend and cameraman Seb Montaz…
When I was young, golf was a big part of our family. This video is about 3 life lessons that I learnt from golf.
When I was 10 my parents bought a summer house 40km from Dublin that was next to a golf course. My brothers and sister all grew up with golf all around us: playing it, watching it, watching my dad acquire new clubs, new machines to transport clubs around the golf course.
This year, my father fulfilled a dream. He travelled to Augusta this year with 3 good friends and spent the first few days on the course with the professionals. We just watched Sergio Garcia win his first major (after 72 attempts), with a win on the first playoff hole against Justin Rose.
The Augusta Masters is one of the sporting events that I remember watching every year of my life. The last few holes have had some epic wins, and some epic losses. Success in golf, and in life, is less about the brilliance of one shot, and more about the consistent quality of 75 shots.
If I am not taking action, it is often because I do not truly believe that the action will achieve the end goal of pain avoidance, or deliver the gain.
The Pain Avoidance Driven Life
There are a set of things we do because we “have” to. These tend to be actions driven by pain avoidance.
It is not hard to get a sick person to take painkillers. They directly remove a current, real pain.
It is not hard to get a hungry person to eat. The food directly removes a current, real pain.
It is not hard to get a scuba diver to come to the surface when they run out of air.
It is not hard to get myself to sleep when I am tired.
It is not hard to get myself to go to the toilet when I need to pee.
I don’t need any boss or discipline to do these tasks because the environment will just ramp up the pain steadily until I have no choice but to take action.
An entirely pain-avoidance driven life will inevitably leave a growing feeling of overwhelm.
The Gain Driven Life
“The things that will bring you the greatest results in your life don’t have a deadline.” Steve McClatchy
Perhaps the greatest positive of gain driven action is that it is entirely discretionary. It is driven by choice. It is the tool by which I change my fate. It is the set of actions that define what type of human being I have chosen to be.
There is no need to take these actions.
In many cases, I live an internal fantasy life based on “I could do this, I could do that” that allows me to feel like I am the type of person I intend to be… but only in my own inner life. Not to the world. Not in any meaningful way.
Anybody could write a blog post.
Anybody could go for a walk.
Anybody could eat 10% less calories for lunch today.
…and the fact that I know that I could is often my own barrier to actually doing. I can maintain my inner image of myself as the highest potential version of me… without seeing that my daily actions are not reaching this potential.
Resilience: the ability to stay creative and motivated in an environment of chaos and change.
Personally, I faced a huge time of chaos and change in late 2008. My company was going bankrupt and my family was falling apart. It is from this time of great difficulty that I learnt most about myself and about what it takes to get me out of bed with energy to make a positive difference during the day. I gave a talk recently about resilience. This post is a summary of my notes on becoming resilient.
There are 3 ingredients of Resilient Human Beings:
These are three ways of being that resilient human beings possess:
They Face Reality
They Find Meaning
They practice Resourceful Action
1. Face Reality
Self Aware, highly open to feedback
“Hope is not a strategy” Colin Powell
Victor Frankl said that the only group with survival rates worse than pessimists were the optimists. Neither see reality as it truly is. Both distort reality. The pessimists were dead in 1 week, optimists were dead in 1 month. The conditions in the camps were not going to get better.
Humans have a natural tendency to claim credit for gains and blame bad luck for losses. We win a bet on a horse race – we attribute it to our knowledge of horses and racetrack conditions. We lose a bet on a football game – we attribute it to a lucky goal against the run of play. In both cases, we distort reality. This distortion means that we cannot learn effectively from experience.
It requires discipline and practice to maintain an emotional state that allows us to act positively after a loss, and to learn how to improve ourselves for the next time.
When I spent a day with Kilian Jornet, one of the most striking elements of his personality was his ability to see success and failure, winning and losing from a humble, ego-less perspective. In a race, if his ski binding were to break, there is no anger… he says “anger is an indulgence” – each second of anger is a second where the other competitors are making progress while I engage in self-indulgence.
I have been part of an Entrepreneurs Organisation forum group for 9 years. Each month I spend 4 hours sharing experiences of life. There are 3 rules to the group – total confidentiality, proactive sharing and only share personal experience. Nobody gives advice. I share a challenge I am facing and I receive feedback that helps me see where I am not seeing the situation clearly.
All emotion is a distortion of reality. Emotion arises when reality is different from my expectation of how reality should be. The greater the emotion, the greater my refusal to accept that the world is not the way I would like it to be. Great joy? I expected less from the world. Great frustration? I expected too much from the world. It is my expectations that are blinding me to the objective reality.
Tony Robbins says “there are no unresourceful people, only unresourceful emotional states”. Resilient people cultivate resourceful emotional states.
Doctor John DeMartini says that the universe is always in balance. The problem is that our perception is only of a small part of the universe. If we observe one part of an experience and feel proud of ourselves – it is because we are not observing the negative impact of our action. DeMartini believes that no action is good or bad. Only actions that align with my highest values are inspiring.
2. Find Meaning
“I am a necessary part of something”
Victor Frankl tells of his first revelation of the importance of a meaning in one’s life. One morning in Auschvitz he was walking out to work. His thoughts: “should I trade my last cigarette for some soup? how will it be to work with this new foreman?”… Suddenly he noted “How banal! I will not survive unless it is for more than this.” He spent time imagining a future that would inspire him. The vision of the future that gave his life meaning was a vision of himself lectures on lessons from camps to hundreds. He worked to create a meaning for himself. There was an important human project that only he could complete. He must survive to publish his book and share his experiences and lessons with the world.
Around the age of 50, Carl Jung visited the Plains Indians of New Mexico. He spent some days with a tribal elder called Mountain Lake. Mountain Lake believed that if the tribe stopped performing their rituals, the sun would stop rising in less than 10 years. Imagine the sense of connection he must have with the world – to so deeply believe that the universe needs him and his people in order to keep functioning.
I was in the bank earlier today to open an account for my daughter. Three people work in the branch. They didn’t look like people who feel that the universe needs them. They don’t even act like the bank needs them. They act like they are not necessary for the world, and that the only thing that matters is accumulating a safe pension fund. Their approach to their work was more characterised as “waiting for 5pm”
The book Sapiens helped me understand that there are three types of truth – objective, subjective, inter-subjective. Objective truths are true in the world – one plus one equals two, this is an Apple Macbook Pro. Subjective truths are true for me – I am warm right now, I feel engaged and excited by the ideas of this blog post and look forward to hearing other’s comments and questions. Inter-subjective truths are particularly special for humanity – they are beliefs that are not objectively true, but enough people believe them that they work as objective truths. Money is an inter-subjective truth. A dollar or euro bill is a piece of paper with some marks on it. However, I know that you will accept it as valuable. Given that I believe that you believe that it is valuable, it is valuable. (There is definitely a future blog post coming on the idea of the inter-subjective truth)
For the purpose of psychological resilience: subjective truth matters most. Subjective truth is not restrained by objective truth (There is another whole blog post on the degree to which subjective truth can diverge from objective truth). Resilient people cultivate belief in ideas that serve to give you peace of mind. Reincarnation is not an objective truth. It is impossible to prove objectively in the world. However, subjective truths are essentially a matter of choice. It is important to be careful about what beliefs we are willing to accept. If I cultivate a belief in reincarnation will it make my anxiety about this life less? Is that a good thing?
We are creatures in need of meaning in a universe without intrinsic meaning. We are blessed in that we each individually have the capacity to create meaning for ourselves. The meaning does not come from outside. The meaning comes from a decision inside ourselves to cultivate a sense of purpose for myself. How to find this purpose? I have 2 questions:
Who inspires you? What do they do or have that makes them inspirational to you?
Who do you want to inspire? What do they need from you?
3. Resourceful Action
A quality of resilient people is that resourceful action is a habit. It can be thought of like the bounce of a ball.
Lets imagine a ball. You drop the ball, it hits the floor… it rebounds. Bounce is an intrinsic property of a ball. Resilient people make the habit of “bouncing back” a natural part of their response to situations. Resilient people constantly gather resources, seek out small opportunities where you are out of control (speaking to strangers, giving a presentation, dancing, sports); Under pressure we collapse back to our practiced habit.
Resilient people practice resourceful action as a daily habit. Daily ingenuity in little challenges leads to habituated ingenuity when faced by major challenges and stresses.
I recently enjoyed a 3 and a half hour podcast interview. Tim Ferriss interviewing Cal Fussman. Initially I thought “3 and a half hours? that must be a mistake”. However, 200 minutes later I was still gripped by the interview. Tim asked Cal how he learnt to interview people so well. Cal spent 10 years backpacking around the world… with very little money. Every time he got on a bus or a train, he needed to find a person on the train that might invite him to stay. He would walk down the aisle looking at strangers thinking “is this someone who might invite me to stay?” He then had to have a conversation that was sufficiently deep so that the stranger invited him to stay. Over 10 years he became very successful in having conversations that led to an invite to stay. Years and years of practice connecting with strangers led him to be able to connect in seconds to Mikail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Mohammed Ali… some of the hundreds of world leaders that he has interviewed for his column in Esquire magazine.
The company UPS has a motto: “do what it takes to deliver”. They expect individual drivers to be resourceful. Within 2 days after Hurrican Andrew in 1992, UPS drivers were delivering packages to people in their cars, in hotels, in civic centres. No manager could have given them instructions on how to find people – the drivers were operating in their habitual mode – “do what it takes to deliver”.
Victor Frankl speaks of the resilient being on constant lookout for resources. They collected string, wire, cigarettes, spoons… anything – knowing that it might come in useful in future.
You can practicing Fertile Inventiveness with 5 daily habits. C.H.A.I.M.
Practice the 5 Steps of C.H.A.I.M. –
Connect – make a human connection today. Meet a stranger. Reconnect with an old friend or family member. Make connecting to others a daily practice.
Humour – laugh at crazy situations, even better: laugh at yourself. Remember Rule #6.
Assistance – get someone to help you today. Even if you don’t need their help, get in the practice of allowing others to help. Develop a deep sense that you can trust that others will help you.
Inner World – take time to imagine and visualise. Remember your dreams. Write a journal that captures the images, ideas and symbols that have an importance to you. What images inspire you? What faces inspire you? Take time to live in this inner world.
Mastery – what are you excellent at? If you can’t answer you must start working. Pick anything, but become a master in something. Music, theatre, greek history, drawing, film reviews, medieval travel, kung fu…
[update] Iñaki sent me these words of Marcus Aurelius that sum up these 3 aspects:
Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need. MARCUS AURELIUS
Resilience summarised by Iñaki:
“See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must.”
These are the three characteristics of mentally strong people. I think the poem “If” is a wonderful summary of the attitudes that allow for resilience.
This is a workshop I teach: Becoming Psychologically Resilient: The 3 Practices of High Performance. Get in touch if you are interested in running this session for your company or team.
Another note: Resilience is neither good nor evil. It is the capacity to keep going in the face of challenge. I would prefer that you work on goodness and personal integrity before you become resilient. Sadly, evil people and selfish people can be resilient and keep sharing their nastiness even as times get hard.
I’d love your feedback. How do we teach these practices? How do I help students develop resilience? Do leaders need special types of resilience (is it harder to stay resilient as an individual marathon runner, or as the leader of a tribe?) I’d welcome your comments, questions and reflections.
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