Lessons Learned – “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone

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I recently finished the audiobook version of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” Not only is the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon an exceptional one, Brad Stone proves to be an engaging storyteller as well.

Jeff Bezos is undoubtedly a controversial individual. His aggressive leadership style, while obviously effective for him, probably isn’t something the average person should model, and his success seems to be the result of his ferocious nature combined with his brilliance. The same could be said for famous entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. Without their genius, their temperaments likely would have resulted in disaster (and they sometimes did).

The Lessons

I’ll admit, reading books like this can be a bit discouraging. Most of us aren’t blessed with the genius of a Bezos or a Musk, nor do we want to emulate their aggressive personalities in order to achieve success. Even so, I think this book contains several powerful lessons that can benefit all of our lives, genius or not.

1. Long-term vs. Short-term Thinking

A common thread throughout the book was Bezos’ aversion to short-term thinking. Almost from the start, he was determined to build Amazon into the world’s foremost online retailer. This might seem like a reasonable idea today (since we are deep into the “age of Amazon”), but the boldness of that goal was pretty spectacular back in the 1990s. The internet was just blooming and the world had yet to embrace purchasing things online.

Bezos consistently showed his commitment to that long-term vision by not letting Amazon’s numerous setbacks discourage him. While other people were freaking out about profit losses and failed product launches, he viewed every one of Amazon’s “losses” as a valuable lesson for the future.

He also committed to long-term thinking in Amazon’s business strategy and product development. While others were concerned about short-term gains, he was thinking years and even decades in the future. This allowed Amazon to outlast its competitors and become the giant it is today.

I think this mindset can be readily applied to our personal lives. Specifically, we should commit to a long-term vision for the future, even if we aren’t completely sure how to achieve it. This allows us to look past all the trivial problems that usually distract us, and instead focus on the big picture. No matter how slow our progress is, we can find joy in the fact that we are moving towards our larger vision.

2. Disrupt Yourself

Here is a quote from one of Bezos’ colleagues that really sums up this lesson:

“It is far better to cannibalize yourself than have someone else do it.”

One thing Bezos constantly did with Amazon was force it to change before the environment made it necessary, even if it caused short-term pain. He saw that many large companies were devastated by the constantly evolving business and technology landscapes. They made important changes only when it was absolutely necessary, which either put them out of business or left them far behind more prescient competitors.

How can this business-based concept be applied to our personal lives?

It’s simply a matter of being proactive instead of reactive. We may not be competing against other businesses, but our lives are changing at a faster rate than ever before. By constantly putting evolutionary pressure on ourselves, we can be better prepared for whatever changes come our way, whether they be in our jobs, our relationships, or our physical health.

For me personally, this means constantly reading new books, exploring new subjects, and pushing myself to attempt new creative endeavors. It’s a philosophy of constant, never-ending growth (something Tony Robbins talks about a lot).

Note: If you’re interested in this idea, check out “Disrupt You!” by Jay Samit. 

3. Only Be Bound by the Laws of Physics

In reference to Bezos’ disregard for doing things in the traditional way, someone who worked closely with him said:

“…he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

All of the innovations that Bezos spearheaded, many of which we all benefit from today, would never have happened if he followed the “rules.”

Nobody thought there could be a successful online bookstore 20 years ago. Now we can buy books for ten dollars a piece and read them on an electronic screen that looks like paper. No one thought amazon could be profitable if they constantly lowered prices and made shipping as fast as possible. Now, people around the world shop at Amazon because of low prices and speedy delivery.

When considering our own hopes and dreams, there are probably years of conventional thinking that tell us what we can and cannot do. Voices, both in and outside of our heads, tell us not to try new things, not to deviate from the norm. But if the success of Bezos and Amazon is any indication, deviation is exactly what is needed to accomplish great things.

This leads me to the last lesson…

4. Be Willing to Try Everything…and Fail

The story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon is not just one of massive success. At times, it seemed like the book was chronicling the downfall of a brilliant but misguided entrepreneur. But this story of trial and tribulation demonstrated an ageless truth: in order to succeed we have to be willing to repeatedly fail in pursuit of our goals.

This is a lesson everyone can benefit from. By embracing failure, we can transform even the greatest of setbacks into opportunities for growth. Our failures then become the foundation for our future success.

Thanks for reading! I hope these lessons can benefit you in some way. And if you enjoy stories about innovation and entrepreneurship, I definitely recommend picking up a copy of this book. 

Quote of the Week #32

Photo: Zarautz, Spain
Photo: Zarautz, Spain

Since 2013 I’ve had a list of personal dreams and goals that I review (almost) every morning. I read somewhere that keeping a list like that would help bring me closer to what I wanted to accomplish. But the results have been pretty sparse over the past few years.

The reason: I didn’t follow up on those aspirations with action. I had a vision, but I didn’t put in the work necessary to make it real.

Someone who does a great job at describing the ideal balance between vision and action is entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. One of his notorious maxims is, “clouds and dirt.” Clouds represent the vision, and dirt represents the hard work it takes to achieve it.

Interestingly, he doesn’t describe it as finding a middle-way between the clouds and the dirt. For him, the middle represents people who neither take the right actions or have a strong vision. What he counsels is living simultaneously in both the clouds and the dirt, having a ridiculously powerful vision and a ridiculously strong work ethic to back it up.

 

Lessons from a Common Cold

“There is one consolation in being sick; and that is the possibility that you may recover to a better state than you were ever in before.”

Henry David Thoreau

After going full speed for the first three weeks of January, a nasty cold forced me to step on the brakes this weekend. This might have been a blessing in disguise.

I was more productive in the past few weeks than any period I can remember. However, my frantic pace left a lot to be desired in terms of rest and conscious reflection. Getting sick forced me to take it easy for a few days. It also made me take a step back and examine why I got sick in the first place. Am I getting enough sleep? Is my diet conducive to good health? Am I pushing myself too hard, too suddenly?

The answers to those questions: No. No. And…probably.

Sleep is Key

A common cliché about success is that it should often come at the cost of sleep. Whenever I read about the great entrepreneurs of past and present, it seems they were all willing to endure weeks or months or even years of low sleep in order to achieve their goals. Then there are motivational speakers such as Eric Thomas, who give quotes like:

“You can’t sleep. Broke people sleep. You got to be willing to sacrifice sleep, if you sleep you may miss the opportunity to be successful.”

Everyone is different. I’m sure there are plenty of people who can operate on four to five hours of sleep per night and be ok. I’m just not one of them. Anytime I go more than a week with less than seven hours of sleep per night, I seem to get sick.

Does this mean I should take on less in order to get more sleep? Not necessarily. I just need to be more proactive in managing my time.

The past few weeks were somewhat of a scheduling experiment. I knew that fitting in all of my obligations would be a process of trial and error. One of the major errors I made was failing to sufficiently plan out my weeks.

Things were easy when I was only teaching 12 hours per week and posting on here once or twice per week. I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, and my to-do list was often just as flexible. That flexibility has all but disappeared now, and if I want to have a decent sleep schedule I need to manage my time more carefully.

Eat Your Veggies

Along with a busier work schedule this year, I also committed to putting on some muscle in the gym. This means eating a lot more than what I’m used to. In order to accomplish this, I’ve been pounding calorie-rich carbohydrates (cereal, pasta, rice, etc.) but basically ignoring fruits and vegetables. Combined with low sleep, that kind of diet is a recipe for disaster (pun intended).

I need to find a way to be more disciplined with my diet. More fruits, more greens, and more water as well.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The best time management book I’ve ever read is Stephen Covey’s “First Things First.” One of its core ideas is deciding on and prioritizing the “first things” in your life. He uses the analogy of filling a bucket with a combination of big and small rocks. The only way to fit them all is to put the big rocks in first and then fill the gaps with the smaller rocks. This means that certain tasks will take a backseat to others depending on what your “big rocks” are.

In taking on so much so fast, I never chose my big rocks.

This was mainly due to impatience. I came into this year with a ton of ambitions and my initial instinct was to try to accomplish them all at once. I treated all of my ambitions like big rocks. But just like my poor diet and lack of sleep, this won’t be sustainable. In fact, not prioritizing my ambitions will probably lead to me accomplishing less in every area.

I’m going to have to sit down and really think about what my top priorities are for this year, and not feel guilty if I can’t devote equal time to everything I want to accomplish. Off the top of my head, developing this blog and my youtube channel are my two biggest rocks. Teaching, traveling, and personal growth (reading, meditating, etc.) are integral parts of those goals so they would be big rocks as well.

What smaller rocks does that leave?  Goals such as gaining muscle and having an active social life.

That doesn’t mean I can’t pursue these goals, but maybe I should be a little less eager with them at the moment. Instead of trying to gain muscle right away, I can simply make going to the gym a habit. Instead of being the most social person ever, I can make sure I go out and socialize at least one night per week.

Starting small in some areas is better than trying to do too much and getting overwhelmed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote of the Week #30

Photo: San Sebastian, Spain
Photo: San Sebastian, Spain

“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”

– Mahatma Gandhi 

I recently wrote about “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. “Always do your best” is probably my favorite agreement, and I think this quote from Gandhi carries the same message.

Our full effort is all that we can ask of ourselves at any moment. Sometimes that effort will produce amazing results. Other times it will leave us massively short of our goals. The fact of the matter is that results will always vary.

All we can control is the consistency of our effort.

 

 

 

 

 

Quote of the Week #29

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“Without hustle, your talent will only get you so far.” 

– Gary Vaynerchuk

The tone of this week’s quote is a little different than what I normally post, but I think Gary Vee’s words really highlight my mindset going into 2017.

For most of my life, I’ve gotten by on my natural talents combined with a ton of support (both emotionally and financially) from my family. While I’ve put a lot of work into my mental and emotional health over the past few years, I’ve yet to really exert myself when it comes to achieving the life I want externally. I guess you could say I’ve just been skating by my whole life, never failing at anything but also never achieving the kind of success I I know I’m capable of.

Along with focusing on mindfulness, I want to make this a year of hustle and execution. And for what seems like the first time in my life, I actually have a clear purpose to work towards: building this blog and my Youtube channel.

Here’s to a year filled with both presence and productivity!

Quote of the Week #25

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It constantly amazes me how, when I’m fully engaged with even the smallest task, everything seems to go more smoothly. That’s not to say that being present allows me to succeed at everything I do. I still have to push through blocks and make tons of mistakes. But when approached from a place of presence, none of those things are inherently negative. They are simply part of the process of living and learning.

Freedom from Outcome Part 3: How to Cultivate It

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Note: This is the final post in a series on freedom from outcome. You can find the first two posts here:

Part 1

Part 2

In my last two posts I discussed what freedom from outcome is and how it can benefit our lives. Now I want to talk about a few of the best strategies I’ve found for cultivating it.

Selfless Service

This is something I touched on in Part 2. Selfless service – Seva in Sanskrit – is the underlying theme of the Bhagavad Gita, though it is encouraged in most religions as well. It means acting to benefit other people or society as a whole.

What fascinates me most about selfless service is the idea that it can be performed in every part of our lives. Pretty much any action can be done in the spirit of selfless service, even if it’s something that appears to be done for our own gain.

This idea is emphasized in the line, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in your mind.” (Chapter 3, Verse 19)

How exactly would this look?

In my previous post I gave the example of how I tried to act selflessly in my job as a recreation leader. With every action I took, I did my best to focus on how it could benefit the children I worked with or society at large. I applied this from everything from planning summer camp activities to setting up tables and chairs. Having a job that dealt directly with helping people, this ended up being easy to do.

Of course, there are plenty of actions that don’t seem related to serving others at all. How can we brush our teeth or read a book selflessly? I try and solve this conundrum with some mental yoga. I think about how, by brushing my teeth consistently, I will have a smile that can help brighten someone’s day. Or I imagine how reading a book will give me a little more knowledge that I can pass on to others. It probably sounds like a stretch (hence the mental yoga), but so far it’s worked pretty well for me.

What makes selfless service so effective at cultivating freedom from outcome? The Bhagavad Gita explains it best: “They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego cage of “I,” “me,” and “mine” to be united with the Lord.” (Chapter 2, Verse 71)

Attachment to outcome often stems from the ego’s habit of making everything about “me.” Selfless service helps get us out of our heads and away from our egos. When we are working for the sake of others, our concern is no longer “me, me, me!”

I know it’s not a perfect strategy. It’s possible to still be attached to outcome when doing things for others. There’s even the risk of building an ego around selflessness. But I look at selfless service, not as the almighty solution to attachment to outcome, but as a useful tool to hammer away at it.

Process Orientation

Accomplishing anything in life, no matter how small, requires that we go through certain processes. To clean our cars we have to hose them down, scrub them with soap, and then dry them off. In order to write a great essay we must sit down, draw up an outline, create a first draft, and then make edits from there. Skipping steps in any process may work on occasion, but it won’t produce consistent results.

Process orientation means focusing on the processes instead of the results they produce. It’s a concept I was first exposed to in the book “Mastery” by George Leonard, though I don’t think it ever uses that exact term (I actually don’t remember where I heard it). The main premise of “Mastery” is that, in order to master anything in life, we must embark on the “master’s journey.” This journey is full of ups, downs, and plenty of plateaus, and it’s only by learning to enjoy the process that we can make it through.

This illustrated in the line, “How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.”

The parallels between this concept and the advice given in the Bhagavad Gita are pretty remarkable. In fact, I like to think of process orientation as the mindset of freedom from outcome manifested in action.

I’ll use the process of creating a blog post as an example. Starting out, I know I want to write a great post.  So I stop and consider what steps (to the best of my knowledge) will allow me to do that. Usually it starts with me coming up with an idea and getting a basic outline on paper. Then I have to type out a couple of pages, trying out different ideas, structures, and tones. Only after I’ve done that for an hour or so will my writing start to flow. Once I feel I’ve written enough, then comes the slow process of editing and restructuring my post until it’s ready to publish.

If I had the choice, I would happily skip the first two or three steps of that process and go straight to the part where my writing is flowing. But  that’s not possible. It’s only by going through those initial steps that getting into a flow is even possible.

The only logical thing to do in this case is surrender to the process. So I go about creating my outline, writing a rough draft, and so on. I’m not thinking about the end result or how much I can’t wait to get to the next step. This is because I fully accept that completing the current step is the only way to move on to the next.

This probably doesn’t seem like an attractive concept, let alone an easy way to cultivate freedom from outcome. It takes a lot of discipline to be consistently process oriented. But I think it pays off.

I’ve found that looking at life from the perspective of processes takes a lot of pressure off myself. I no longer have to worry about being “good enough” to accomplish something and I stop attributing my failures to weaknesses in my character. Instead, when looking at any goal or task, I ask myself what steps are necessary to accomplish it and then surrender to them.

Massive Action

Much of our attachment to outcome is a result of too much thinking and not enough action. We think about the results we want, who we want to see them, and all the things that could go wrong along the way. Then we think some more. We become paralyzed by this endless cycle of thinking.

The simplest way I’ve found to stop all this thinking, and thus gain freedom from outcome, is to take massive action towards what I want. This is something I’ve really tried to implement in my life recently. Whenever I find myself procrastinating, worrying about how things will turn out, I just start taking action.

This applies to big and small anxieties. If I’m worried about how a blog post will turn out then I simply go and write more. If I’m concerned about my future financial situation then I start learning how to budget and invest my money. So far this strategy has been very effective for me.

Massive action serves the dual purpose of getting us out of our thinking minds while also bringing us closer to the results we want. It’s as if we are so busy taking action that we simply don’t have to think, let alone worry about outcomes. And more often than not, taking massive action leads to the outcome we want. If it doesn’t, then we learned a valuable lesson that only taking action could have taught us.

 

To sum up, selfless service, process orientation, and massive action are three strategies that have helped me cultivate more freedom from outcome in my life. I sincerely hope they can do the same for you.

If you give any of them of try, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments. 

 

A Battle With Ambition – Freedom From Outcome Part 1

Note: This is the first of three posts on a concept I refer to as “freedom from outcome.” This post will serve as an introduction, while the other two will go more in depth on the concept. 

To Strive, or Not to Strive…

I’ve struggled with the idea of ambition for a long time. When I was growing up it always had mixed connotations depending on who I was talking to. Sometimes people would call someone overly ambitious as an insult. Other times ambition was praised. More often than not, it seemed like people judged based on what someone was ambitious about, with some ambitions being superior to others.

This ambiguity towards ambition has stuck with me in my adult life. At times I see my own ambitions as a source of pride. During others I view them as chains that will ultimately lead me to an unfulfilled life.  I’ve usually just erred on the side of having little ambition.

Despite the occasional desire for extravagant things, I’ve been able to convince myself that I don’t want too much out of life. All I really need is the ability to travel and have new experiences. Things like wealth and extreme success (in any area) just seem superfluous, like things that will only distract me from what really matters in life.

But do I truly not want a ton of money or amazing levels of success? Do I not want to explore the heights of what I can accomplish? Because deep down I see the potential I have to do great things and live a really amazing life.

My lack of ambition is starting to reveal its true identity: fear. It’s the fear of trying to get get these things and failing. It’s the fear that I don’t have what it takes to succeed. It’s the fear that I will become miserable by going after things like money and success.

But isn’t not thinking big out of fear just as damaging as expecting money and success to make me happy? Aren’t both situations just two sides of the same coin?

As someone who loves to read, especially about self-development and spirituality, I see that I’ve fallen into a mental trap. I’ve read tons of books about how true happiness is purely internal and I’ve bought into that idea. That’s not necessarily a problem by itself, but I’ve been using it as an excuse to not take any real action in my life. I reason away my stagnation by saying, “What’s the point of pursuing any challenging goals if it won’t make me happy in the end?”

This is bullshit logic though. Sure, happiness does ultimately come from inside, but if I were to truly take that to heart I would give up all my possessions and go live in a cave. Yeah…that’s never going to happen.

The truth of the matter is that I want A LOT of things. I want success. I want money. I want passion. I want adventure. I want to have my cake and eat it to.

Lessons From the Past

This situation reminds me of a lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture that I read last summer.

The Gita takes the form of a narrative, with the young prince Arjuna as its protagonist. Arjuna is preparing for the Mahabharata war, in which he must fight against members of his own family. Unsure of how to proceed he asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna (an incarnated form of God), for guidance. The rest of the scripture offers wisdom in the form of Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna.

A large part of this advice centers around Arjuna’s conflicted feeling towards fighting his own family. In order to guide him toward the right course of action, Krishna introduces a few different concepts, namely the different paths to self-realization (enlightenment) and the role of dharma.

According to Krishna, there are three main paths to self-realization: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga. I’m going to focus on the first and last paths. Karma yoga is essentially liberation through action, specifically action without attachment to results. Jnana yoga is liberation through wisdom and contemplation. It means renouncing all desires and action (think living in a cave).

There is no exact translation of Dharma in the English language, but it roughly translates to one’s personal duty, or “right action”. I liken it to the different roles we play in our lives, like that of a parent, teacher, doctor, or even a member of a community. Fulfilling your dharma means performing that duty to the best of your ability.

One must follow his or her dharma in order to reach self-realization. This is how dharma and the different types of yoga tie into together. Whether you choose karma yoga or jnana yoga depends on your dharma. The dharma of of young man who wants to live an active life would be different than that of an old man who wants to live a quiet life. Thus, the young man would take the path of karma yoga in order to achieve self-realization. The old man may be best suited retiring away from the material world in order to gain self-realization through wisdom and contemplation.

Concluding his advice, Krishna tells Arjuna that the best way to self-realization is through following his dharma as a warrior and fighting in the upcoming battle. In other words, he must take the path of karma yoga, taking action without being attached to the outcome.

How does this relate to my struggle with ambition? While I don’t necessarily believe in self-realization in the way it’s described in the Bhagavad Gita, I think it can be interpreted as the highest degree of fulfillment you can experience in life. From this perspective, the concepts of dharma and the different types of yoga offer a kind of guide for living a truly fulfilling life.

The attitude I spoke of above, in which I claim that happiness can only be found internally, is similar to jnana yoga. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, yet as a young man who enjoys living in the material world – not secluded on a mountain – it would make very little sense for me to follow that path towards happiness. Instead, my dharma would be that of someone who has material desires and wants to achieve success.

Maybe when I’m old and broken down I’ll find happiness through inaction. But at 24 years old, taking action is the only way to go.

Freedom from Outcome: Balancing Action and Desire

I’m starting to realize that happiness doesn’t come from not pursuing my ambitions, but from taking action towards them and enjoying the process. It’s a balance between inner and outer fulfillment.

This has been a great realization, but how do I manage to go after the things I desire without falling into the trap of basing my happiness on them?

This is where freedom from outcome, the main theme of this series of posts, comes into play. Freedom from outcome (or detachment from outcome) is a concept that I first came across in the Bhagavad Gita. However, I’ve noticed that it’s a core principle taught in almost all of the spiritual, philosophical, and self-help resources I’ve come across.

So what does is mean to be free from outcome?  It means taking action while simultaneously being unattached to the result of that action. On a deeper level, it means finding satisfaction in the process of taking action instead of the result that comes from it.

I truly believe that, if applied even a little bit, freedom from outcome is the solution to my own dilemma regarding ambition, and also a myriad of other problems that most of us face in our daily lives. These problems include stress and anxiety, creative blocks, and extreme emotional ups and downs.

In my next post I will go into detail on freedom from outcome, examining what it looks like, some of my favorite sources that encourage it, and the benefits it can have in our lives.