- When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was 10 years old, he took a road trip with his grandparents that forever changed his life.
- During the ride, he did something that caused his grandmother to burst into tears.
- His grandfather pulled over, had him get out of the car and told him this: ‘it’s harder to be kind than clever.’
- The incident had a profound impact on Bezos, and perhaps explains a lot about Amazon’s corporate culture.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was clearly a precocious child.
Bezos spent his summers with his grandparents on their south Texas ranch, in part to give his young parents a breather. He was born to a teenaged mother, who married Cuban immigrant Miguel Bezos when he was four years old.
That time on the ranch is where his grandfather taught him about self-reliance, everything from how to fix equipment to how to care for a sick cow, Bezos said. And he learned lots of life lessons he carries with him today, he said.
Bezos’ remarks came during an on-stage interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer, Business Insider’s parent company. The interview was part of an awards event in Berlin hosted by Business Insider’s US editor-in-chief, Alyson Shontell.
During those days on the ranch, his grandfather also dispensed plenty of words of wisdom, he said.
One major example came when Bezos was 10 years old. This was in 1974, when there was a big public health movement to get people to stop smoking, and anti-smoking commercials were airing constantly.
“One of the advertisements had this figure in it,” Bezos recalled on stage. “It said something like ‘every puff of a cigarette takes so many minutes off your life. I can’t remember, I think it was 2 minutes.”
Bezos knew his grandmother was a chain smoker.
“So I sat at the back of this car ride and calculated how many minutes she had taken off her life. In my 10-year-old-mind, I had been extremely clever to do this. When I finished with my arithmetic, I proudly announced to her how many years she had taken off her life,” he said.
Her response was to burst into tears. Bezos was shocked and surprised, never expecting that reaction.
“So my grandfather stopped the car and he took me out,” Bezos remembers.
“And I had no idea what was going to happen because he had never said a cross word to me. And I thought, he might actually be angry with me,” he said.
But he wasn’t. His grandfather simply wanted to talk to him in privacy.
And his grandfather said, “You are going to figure out one day, that’s it’s harder to be kind than to be clever.”
Bezos never forgot that story or that wisdom.
And it explains a lot about Amazon because some would say the culture at his company can sometimes be more clever than kind.
While Amazon is often kind to its customers — it is obsessive about great customer service — the company has the reputation that its focus on employee productivity and meeting data-driven targets can make Amazon a hard, sometimes even cruel place to work.
Amazon workers tell stories of peeing in bottles in the warehouse, because the bathroom was too from the work floor and their output was so carefully measured, they were afraid using attending to their body’s needs would cause them to miss their work targets. They also tell of getting penalised for talking to their coworkers.
“The metrics are brutally aggressive, and most of my colleagues are in a state of constant anxiety that we could be fired at any moment for not meeting metrics,” one current US warehouse employee recently told Business Insider reporter Shona Ghosh.
On the other hand, while Bezos is the first to admit that Amazon measures everything in detail, he has also recently said that the true key to running a business is listening to people, particularly customers.
“The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it,” he recently explained.
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