In 2010, Amazon founder, bazillionaire, and super smart guy Jeff Bezos told a story to Princeton graduates about the life lesson his grandfather taught him: one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.
What you don’t know is how much he learned about business from his grandmother.
Here is the outline of a new business and leadership book I’m ghostwriting for Bezos’ grandmother: All Jeff Bezos Ever Needed to Know About Running a Business He Learned from Washing Grandma’s Dishes.¹
#1: Give a shit about somebody outside of yourself.
Know that ugly ceramic coffee mug sitting on the breakfast table?
You know, that one.
Well, you might think it’s a piece of crap, and I might agree with you, but it might be the most precious thing your grandma owns.
Treat it with care and respect.
Here’s what Jeff Bezos learned from his grandma:
“If there’s one reason we have done better than of our peers… it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience, and that really does matter, I think, in any business…. word-of-mouth is so very, very powerful.”
So before you go to grandma and her coffee klatch of angel investors, remember what my buddy Bezos and I told you — give a shit about somebody outside of yourself.
#2: You can be creative while doing the drudgery.
You think that doing the dishes is lame and should be avoided at all times.
Damn, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Doing dishes is mindless work that gives you time to think of new ideas or find answers to questions no one has asked before.²
Jeff Bezos learned this at an early age.
Here’s a quote that works just as well if you substitute “at Grandma’s” for “in business.” (And who can say if it wasn’t his original quote?)
The common question that gets asked in business is, ‘why?’ That’s a good question, but an equally valid question is, ‘why not?’
Learning to see process while doing day-to-day operations is an invaluable skill.
If you notice a better way to organize grandma’s plates, silverware, or cooking utensils, you should talk to her about it.
Jeff Bezos learned that while reorganizing Grandma’s collection ceramic figurines by size and shipping weight while taking photos of everything. (There’s no time like the present to prepare for an estate sale!)
But seriously, Bezos learned to use his time in positive ways:
My view is there’s no bad time to innovate.
#3: They’re family, not servants
Don’t act like a spoiled child, even if you are one.
Doing the dishes is a sign of respect.
And it’s a sign that you value your grandmother.
No one will ever have your back like your grandmother and grandfather³.
No one will ever overlook all your mistakes and flaws like them.
You should return the favor, and come through for them in ways your parents might not be able to.
Jeff Bezos learned from his grandmother that leadership is about being the person that everyone can count on.
“I love people counting on me, and so, you know, today it’s so easy to be motivated because we have millions of customers counting on us at Amazon.com. We’ve got thousands of investors counting on us. And we’re a team of thousands of employees all counting on each other. That’s fun.”
Don’t wait for grandma to do it when you know she’s busy helping someone do something else.
Like writing your business plan.
#4: Some things have to be done by hand.
Don’t ruin those copper mojito mugs and that Ginsu knife set by throwing them in the dishwasher.
Not only will you ruin high-quality kitchen utensils, but you will leave a permanent reminder that you are lazy.
That’s not the way to build your personal brand.
Jeff Bezos’ grandmother taught him better:
“If you don’t understand the details of your business you are going to fail.”
Your ability to understand the details of your business does two things:
- It ensures that tasks get done right when you are doing them.
- As the business grows to the point that other people have to do those tasks, you will be able to communicate your vision and share your knowledge when you write an employee manual.
#5: Look at decisions from multiple perspectives.
Always, always, always look at the utensil tray from different angles.
Otherwise, you won’t see those knife blades sticking up as you reach in to put everything back in the drawer.
The ability to see things from multiple perspectives will help you identify potential threats and hidden opportunities.
Jeff Bezos looked at his utensil tray from a different angle and created the “Pay to Quit” program. From an Amazon shareholder letter:
Pay to Quit is pretty simple. Once a year, we offer to pay our associates to quit... The headline on the offer is “Please Don’t Take This Offer…” The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want. In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”
Jeff Bezos obviously had a thing with utensil trays because he also found a hidden opportunity. From an Amazon press release:
Amazon announced today the expansion of its Delivery Service Partner program in the US... The new incentive will fund the startup costs, up to $10,000, as well as the equivalent of three months of the former employee’s last gross salary so employees-turned-business-owners can more easily get their package delivery companies off the ground.
Bezos already knew he has a talent pool of committed employees because he offers incentives for unhappy people to leave.
The Delivery Service Partner program is a long term strategy to make Amazon less dependent on UPS and FedEx.
What could be better for Amazon’s expense ledger than having increased competition in the delivery industry to keep UPS and FedEx honest?
Grandma did this, too.
You don’t think she baked all those cookies just for you?
That lazy cousin is getting his weekly sugar fix, just in case she needs to call in a favor.
#6: Never forget that you were grandma’s go-to guy.
Showing up is half the battle. Staying humble is the other half.
It’s what will separate you from your loser cousin who only lives five blocks away, but never shows up to visit.
Jeff Bezos knows all about humility:
“It’s hard to remember for you guys, but for me, it’s like yesterday I was driving the packages to the post office myself, and hoping one day we could afford a forklift.”
Even after you run a successful business, remember where you came from.
So go visit grandma and do the dishes for old time’s sake.
You may need her help in the boardroom if there’s a hostile takeover by that loser cousin of yours.
Here’s to better writing.
¹Yes, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates wash their own dishes. (And so do I.)
Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both do this mundane chore that may have significant mental benefits
The two richest men on the planet aren't above pitching in at home.
²Washing dishes can significantly lower your stress level — if you do it mindfully, according to a new study. From Time Magazine:
Washing Dishes Is a Really Great Stress Reliever, Science Says
Washing dishes is a chore no more. Mindfully washing dishes can significantly lower stress levels, according to a new…
Washing the dishes also allows one to be creative, as “engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems.” From Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation:
³Known as “G” (the original grandpa) by my son, he was always there, and always had my son’s back. Miss you, Dad.