Amazon's Jeff Bezos on Pursuing High Standards, Writing Memos and Perfect Handstands

Photo by  Joshua Earle

Photo by Joshua Earle

  • Last week Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in his annual shareholder letter, discussed milestones of the firm's businesses, what it takes to perform a perfect handstand (about six months of daily practice), how to write a great memo (write, review, edit, repeat), and shared views on pursuing high standards including: 
  •  "There’s a foundational question: are high standards intrinsic or teachable? If you take me on your basketball team, you can teach me many things, but you can’t teach me to be taller. Do we first and foremost need to select for “high standards” people? ... I don’t think so. I believe high standards are teachable. In fact, 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. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread. 
  • I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest. When I started Amazon, I had high standards on inventing, on customer care, and (thankfully) on hiring. But I didn’t have high standards on operational process: how to keep fixed problems fixed, how to eliminate defects at the root, how to inspect processes, and much more. I had to learn and develop high standards on all of that (my colleagues were my tutors).  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.
  • What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope.”
  • “The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope ...  Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you
  • “Benefits of High Standards - Building a culture of high standards is well worth the effort, and there are many benefits. Naturally and most obviously, you’re going to build better products and services for customers – this would be reason enough!  Perhaps a little less obvious: people are drawn to high standards – they help with recruiting and retention. More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the “invisible” but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward – it’s part of what it means to be a professional.
  • "And finally, high standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back ... So, the four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope."


  • Bezos' annual letter always has ideas to consider. In addition to focusing on high standards, other factors contributing to the firm's success include 1) managing projects with small teams, 2) making the teams "own" their projects and 3) maintaining a strong focus on addressing customer needs.
  • Regarding writing memos - The act of writing can help us to better understand problems and communicate ideas - and most good writer will agree that iterative cycles of review and edit are very helpful.
  • Regarding the perfect handstand - it sounds like a fun project - check back in six months!
Paul Dravis