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A Letter to Jeff Bezos
Creative Strategy# 6: Always speak truth to power.
A Letter to JeffBezos
“You’re going to figure out one day that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” — Jeff Bezos quoting his grandfather, Business Insider Interview, 4/28/18
I love The Washington Post — America’s best newspaper. I like Amazon Prime — free shipping and quick turnaround. I loved “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel” on the Amazon Prime Channel — amazing art. I love sending ecard gifts to my children instead of shopping by foot. I sell my books and music on Amazon and I make like $15.00 a year. I’m not complaining. That’s 15 bucks more than lotsa of writers and musicians make.
I wanted that to be clear: I respect Jeff Bezos, the entrepreneur. His success is pretty amazing and I have enjoyed the fruits of his labor. But we’ll get back to him.
I want to talk to you. Jeff Bezos, the guy.
You know what I miss? Bookstores. I miss their smell and their tempo and that sorta drowsy meandering that happens there. The pace of thought. I miss that. Everybody seems to be in such a hurry these days. But I guess all old people say stuff like that.
I also like getting home deliveries but I can’t help but see the fraught faces of the truck drivers. $15 an hour. They are hustling and I’m not sure they fit into the big plans of a boss who, as they say, has bigger fish to fry.
Somehow our system rewards the people least responsible for the products we buy. Book sellers (I love them, too) take half the publisher’s price, publishers (some of my best friends) take the other half, and between them they give — what? — 10%? 5%? — to the writers? You know, the workers who spent 1–3–6–10–20 years schlepping the words. Pretty sure my math is off there. Unlike you, I was only really good at math. I’m not smart enough to figure out a better way. Maybe you are. Maybe you have.
I bet that was scary when you were ten and you hurt your Grandma’s feelings about cigarettes (by telling her every one she smoked took a minute or so off her life) and your Grandpa stopped the car and took you gently down the road to gently give you a hard lesson about kindness.
“You’re going to figure out one day that it’s harder to be kind than clever.’” — Jeff Bezos’ Grandpa.
Man, I would have liked to have met him. He reminds me of that line that Jimmy Stewart says in HARVEY. You know, the man who loves an invisible rabbit that only he can see? “My mother used to say, Elwood? In this world you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
I think your Grandpa probably saw that movie. Could be wrong. Probably not. It seems so natural when he says it. You could almost forget a woman wrote those words. Mary Chase. Won a Pulitzer, too. Funny thing, memory. We forget Jimmy Stewart didn’t win an Oscar. Aunt Vita did. Josephine Hull. What a whirlwind.
I remember being smart and nine or ten. Trying to impress my teachers. I bet you never thought your Grandpa was doing something for your Grandma, not you. He was letting her cry and not be ashamed to do it in front of a boy. A boy who cleverly called her out for being unable to stop killing herself. Maybe he thought if he did the math she would stop. Maybe he thought it was a math problem. He was too young to know about addictions, or that even for a loving, devout, hard-working grandma (as I’m sure she was) addiction wasn’t a matter of virtue and character. You know: Those lessons. (I know. I smoked for 30 years and lost a father to it.)
It’s a lovely story, but not an honest one, is it? You left out a few parts, didn’t you? Fact is, you probably found it easier to be smart than kind. “Kind” is one of those words you grow into. Honestly, what’s a 10-year-old nerd who will be constantly bullied for the next 8 years know about “Kind”? You couldn’t do much about being little and picked on, so you worked like a devil to be clever. Maybe part of you thought: If only I got the math perfect — maybe then Grandma can stop. I made similar bargains in my youth.
For a moment, I’ll drop this rather worn convention of addressing famous people who don’t listen. Because everybody works for them.
I’m gonna talk to the rest of us for a second. Then I’ll get back to you. If it helps — imagine me talking to an invisible rabbit that no one sees because they don’t have to unless they are on a demographics chart.
Jeff Bezos has got around 131 billion dollars. Today. Some of which I gave to him. I don’t want it back. I don’t need it until congress decides to charge my Social Security and Medicare for the Trillion Dollar tax cut they just gave to Bezos and the other 1%. When they come for that — and you are, aren’t you, Paul Rand, I mean Paul Ryan — then I’ll be upset. But my back hurts so maybe the youngsters will march for me.
Does he pay the people who work for him enough to live on? See that would be a way of putting that money closer to those most invested in the product. It would go into groceries and farms, and plants and schools, and roads, and gardens and jobs and children’s futures in the neighborhoods they grow up in. Instead it goes to Jeff and his stockholders. Give or take.
God bless him. Or as a Christian might say these days: God Has blessed him.
It’s his money. He can do what he wants.
What does he want? He wants to save Civilization. Nice of him. He wants to move all the potential Mozarts and the Einsteins off world so that earth won’t fall into stasis. Stasis. “Inactivity and Equilibrium.” That sounds like Mr Zod in The Fifth Element. That’s a good movie, too. You remember. Make some chaos and every little creature goes scurrying around to clean up the mess. I think that may be how he sees civilization. A bunch of “unresourceful” (his phrase not mine) stasis-makers with their feet up, sucking on the teats of geniuses like him. Just a thought. Could be wrong. Could be mean. I’m sure he’s a nice guy.
He wants to move the people of earth to space because if we don’t, soon all our land will be covered with solar panels. Really he said that. Is he right? I don’t know. Any energy scientists wanna check him?
He says he’ll invest 1 billion dollars a year into his space program. So we can move our civilization upstairs. Earth will be freed of heavy Industry and become beautiful again — you know — like a National Park.
I say: Let Him. He could spend a billion a year for a century and he (or his heirs) would have 31 billion left over. For now.
Can you think of what he might do with the rest of that fortune?
I have a few ideas.
He could invent a time-travel machine that’ll let me go back to when he was four and his parents left him at his lovely grandparents ranch because “they needed a break.” For three months. An entire summer separated from his friends, parents and sibs. I bet that toughened him up. Made him darn resourceful.
Then I could tell that four-year (I have a 3 year-old grandson whom I love dearly and, I once raised a couple of 4-year olds so I know all about parents needing a break. And my lovely biological daughter was adopted so I know more than a little about what your mom went through at 17, Jeff.)
Here’s what I’d say to that boy.
Hey, Jeff. Nice to meet you. You don’t talk much, but I can see you’re a great listener. I was too when I was a little boy. I heard all sorts of stuff big people didn’t think I heard. You don’t have to say anything. Here, take my hand, let’s go for a walk. See that flower? That’s beautiful. See that field, that’s pretty isn’t it?
Listen, when I was five something happened to me that made me sad, so I have some idea of what you are feeling. Your parents sent you away for three months. Didn’t they? You’re lonely, and you miss your mom and your dad and your friends and sibs. And you don’t understand what you did wrong.
Oh, you love your grandparents — so did I. They are lovely people. So are you. Everybody on this ranch loves you. Your parents love you.
I understand. It’s scary to be alone and away from home — I know. You know how I know? I was in the hospital when I was five (and, heck, I could talk like a big boy). And that ache in your chest — you don’t deserve that! It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything bad. I know, because I didn’t do anything bad.
So relax. You don’t have to fix it. You don’t have to fix everything.
You are a good boy and people love you. No matter what. You don’t have to be the smartest kid in school to deserve that love. You don’t have to work harder than anyone else. You don’t have to build the strongest castle in the world to protect yourself from these scary feelings. Or the biggest spaceship. You are great. See that flower? That rabbit? Isn’t it beautiful? Now listen. One last thing.
You don’t have to be the best. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems. There are lots of people who can help. Like I’m helping you. Heck, I don’t even work for you. Yet.
You don’t have to store all these riches like that squirrel and his nuts. You can share them. There’s plenty for everybody.
Look at all that sunshine. Smell that clean air. Here. Have a bite of apple. Can I have one, too? Thanks. See how easy that is?
You don’t have to fix the world or even most of it.
You are good. You deserve love.
I know you are scared and lonely at night when no one can hear you and everyone is sleeping. And you cry.
We all feel that way sometimes. Not just you.
But we wake up and it’s morning.
And somebody who loves us is making pancakes.
— Patrick O’Leary