How To Think Like Jeff Bezos: The “Always Day One” Philosophy

"Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."—Calvin Coolidge

When your company becomes the most valuable company in the world—Amazon and $1,000,000,000,000 (that's a trillion)—have you made it?

If you're Jeff Bezos, you're just getting started.

After 20 years, you might slow down or get comfortable, most do. For Bezos, it's always Day One.

Let's look at Bezos’ philosophy that is the foundation of how he became a billionaire and Amazon the most valuable company in the world.

From Amazon's 2016 Letter to Shareholders, it begins with this except:

"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?

This idea might seem business-centric as if it could only be applied to a growing business like Amazon. But if you dig a bit deeper, you can see the philosophical underpinnings rooted in many of the same truisms I talk about on this channel: kaizen, long term thinking, focus, first Principles, etc.

Let's try to tweeze out some lessons from this 2016 letter. To read the full letter, go here.

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

Jeff believes Day 2 is the beginning of the end. In another quote, he talks about the reality that Amazon will someday reach Day 2, and it is his responsibility as the CEO to prevent that day for as long as possible.

If we look at the trajectory of an average human life, there is a consistent pattern: baby, child, teenager, young adult, adult, middle-aged, old, death.

You could say that Day 2 for a human being starts with comfortability and ends in death. To put off the beginning of the end for as long as possible, one has to be vigilant in his or her awareness of the signs.

Day 2 for a human life usually starts with declining health, which declines mind and body and thus motivation, energy and performance. For most people, it happens long before their body and mind give out, the decline starts with floating in the pool of comfort. This current of comfort is a stream most never escape, so they end up spending their latter years floating down a "lazy river" of safety. For human life, this is Day 2: it's the start of the slow, sometimes fast, decline. It's the beginning of the end.

If we think like Jeff, we will come to terms with our mortality, and we will think about it often since that is the best strategy for keeping it at bay—awareness.

How else do you ward off the inevitable?

You do what Charlie Munger recommends in this quote, "All I want to know is where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there."

Day Two Is Inevitable

Step one to Day 1 thinking is accepting the fact that Day 2 is inevitable. Keep this front and center. Consider it on a daily basis.

The Stoics use a technique known as negative visualization, which is based on visualizing the worst thing that can happen as a salve for a mind focused on trivial things. Your death and the death of loved ones can help you see through the day-to-day muck of life so you can focus on being grateful for what you have rather than focusing on the small inconveniences in your way.

"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."

Bezos believes death for Amazon will be slow, and in many cases, insidious to the point of going unnoticed. This is why he is so hyper-vigilant about focusing on Day 1. He re-attaches the original 1997 letter to shareholders every year as a reminder for his employees, investors, and customers that Amazon is obsessed with Day One thinking.

You have to become obsessed with Day One thinking, or you won't notice when you slip into Day Two. And since getting out of Day Two might be near-impossible, obsession is a must.

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here's the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don't yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.

Be Obsessed

Let's try to find a comparison for Customer Obsession that we can apply to our lives.

Obsession is a good word though it often comes with a negative connotation that I think is undeserved. Obsession can keep you healthy, striving, and engaged in life, whereas average, typical, and easy are the bedfellows of Day Two decline.

So there are two parts to this obsession idea.

First, you should become obsessed with whatever you are obsessed with. In Bezos case, being obsessed with Day One thinking by being obsessed with customer obsession is his formula.

Maybe it's your health you become obsessed with, and so it's your daily fitness and nutrition program that is the focus of your health obsession. So you are obsessed with fitness and nutrition because you are obsessed with maintaining your health for as long as possible.

This is how you use obsession to ward off Day Two thinking and stay in Day One for as long as possible.

The reason we are even talking about these things is because humans have an average lifespan defined by the Bell Curve. No human has ever lived to be 200, and most humans will live to be about 70 years old. This is a blip of time when you look at the cosmic time scale of our Universe, but it sure seems like a long time to us humans.

Due to our typical lifespan, humans follow an expected growth and decline schedule. Most people have kids, start careers, graduate from school, have grandkids, and go into "retirement" on typical timelines.

This is also why companies die.

In the case of Amazon, when Bezos retires or dies, the odds are Day Two has just begun. It’s doubtful Amazon will be able to replace Bezos with another CEO that has the same commitment to Day One thinking to maintain Amazon's Day 1 obsession. It's possible but highly unlikely.

This is why most companies do not survive their founders: because the founders are the reason these companies become what they did in the first place. When the founders are gone, the idea that got them there usually goes with them.

Applying Day One thinking to your life comes down to being obsessed with an obsession.

This could be your art, your work, your passions, your family, etc. When you find your purpose and become obsessed with it, you figure out how to build your life around maintaining this Day One obsession or as long as possible.

This is why you see any humans living over 100 years of age always have intense desires around things they enjoy as well as connection with other humans (connection with other humans is a biological necessity for long term health and well being).

Ideally, you will become obsessed with your health and your relationships because you realize these support your primary obsession, whatever that happens out be.

Day 1 thinking also includes a ruthless culling of the non-essential.

Removing things that don't belong is paramount to focus. But that's a topic we will explore another day.

For now, start thinking about how to think Day One in your life.

If you find yourself erring into Day 2 territory, it will require tremendous effort to reverse the tide. It's possible, but like in the case of whoever will replace Bezos when he's gone, it is highly improbable.