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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bezos on the big brains

I recall reading this quote (or something similar) when Bezos was Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1999.
Jeff Bezos: Yeah. So, I went to Princeton primarily because I wanted to study physics, and it's such a fantastic place to study physics. Things went fairly well until I got to quantum mechanics and there were about 30 people in the class by that point and it was so hard for me. I just remember there was a point in this where I realized I'm never going to be a great physicist. There were three or four people in the class whose brains were so clearly wired differently to process these highly abstract concepts, so much more. I was doing well in terms of the grades I was getting, but for me it was laborious, hard work. And, for some of these truly gifted folks -- it was awe-inspiring for me to watch them because in a very easy, almost casual way, they could absorb concepts and solve problems that I would work 12 hours on, and it was a wonderful thing to behold. At the same time, I had been studying computer science, and was really finding that that was something I was drawn toward. I was drawn to that more and more and that turned out to be a great thing. So I found -- one of the great things Princeton taught me is that I'm not smart enough to be a physicist.
However, from the perspective of others:
... To the amazement and irritation of employees, Bezos’s criticisms are almost always on target. Bruce Jones, a former Amazon supply chain vice president, describes leading a five-engineer team figuring out ways to make the movement of workers in fulfillment centers more efficient. The group spent nine months on the task, then presented their work to Bezos. “We had beautiful documents, and everyone was really prepared,” Jones says. Bezos read the paper, said, “You’re all wrong,” stood up, and started writing on the whiteboard.

“He had no background in control theory, no background in operating systems,” Jones says. “He only had minimum experience in the distribution centers and never spent weeks and months out on the line.” But Bezos laid out his argument on the whiteboard, and “every stinking thing he put down was correct and true,” Jones says. “It would be easier to stomach if we could prove he was wrong, but we couldn’t. That was a typical interaction with Jeff. He had this unbelievable ability to be incredibly intelligent about things he had nothing to do with, and he was totally ruthless about communicating it.”

It turns out I know several of Bezos' contemporaries at Princeton (class of 1986), including some members of his eating club, and probably some of the individuals described above. See this old post, Living Like Kings:
Physics library, LeConte Hall, Berkeley, 1987. Studying string theory and Calabi-Yau tomfoolery about 100m from the Campanile in the picture above. We'll never have it better than that.

Me: Mike, I can't believe we're in here working on such a beautiful afternoon. Look at that sunshine!

Mike C. (the pride of Jadwin Hall): Hsu, we're doing exactly what we want to be doing. We're livin' like kings, man! Livin' like kings (big grin).

See also One hundred thousand brains and Defining Merit:
... Bender also had a startlingly accurate sense of how many truly intellectually outstanding students were available in the national pool. He doubted whether more than 100-200 candidates of truly exceptional promise would be available for each year's class. This number corresponds to (roughly) +4 SD in mental ability. Long after Bender resigned, Harvard still reserved only 10 percent of its places (roughly 150 spots) for "top brains".

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