This year’s letter focuses on some key lessons around “high standards”:
- They are teachable, rather than intrinsic — “people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt… And though exposure works well to teach high standards, I believe you can accelerate that rate of learning by articulating a few core principles of high standards”
- They are domain specific, rather than universal — “you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest… Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots.”
- You must be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain…
- … and have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result — the scope.
More than anything else (lack of skill, inability to recognize the standard, etc.), understanding how much work will be required to meet the high standard seems to be the most common culprit of not meeting it:
Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
It is therefore likely that the key reason why Bezos’ shareholder letters are so compelling, is because he fully appreciates the scope necessary to meet a high standard of shareholder letters 🙂