Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bezos quotes

These quotes appear in an excerpt from a new biography by Brad Stone. Stone uncovers some new ground -- tracking down Bezos' long-lost biological father, who was unaware(!) that his son had become a billionaire e-commerce titan.

I had always heard that Bezos has a vulcan or hyper-rational management style. It's good to know he occasionally loses his temper like everyone else.
“Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

“I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”

“Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”

“Are you trying to take credit for something you had nothing to do with?”

“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

“We need to apply some human intelligence to this problem.”

[After reviewing the annual plan from the supply chain team] “I guess supply chain isn’t doing anything interesting next year.”

[After reading a start-of-meeting memo] “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.”

[After an engineer’s presentation] “Why are you wasting my life?”

... 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.”
See also Bezos on the big brains ;-)
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.
"Abstract geniuses" like the ones Bezos encountered at Princeton might not have the common sense or practical inclination necessary to run an organization like Amazon, but on the other hand, perhaps a few do! 8^)  In any case, credit to Bezos for being so brutally honest and logical about his own abilities and limitations. Most people, when confronted by an obviously superior intellect (even if confined to some narrow subset of abilities), resort to comforting rationalizations: "I could understand quantum mechanics if I really wanted to. But I don't, so who cares!"


Shawn said...

I would be very interested in knowing who Steve thinks are the top 10 most intelligent people alive (those that he at least knows of). People talk all the time about the top 10 quarterbacks, pitchers, soccer players, etc., but these people are far more important.

Norkuat said...

Difficulty with introductory Quantum Mechanics? hmm. There are so many strange ideas and mathematical tricks that need to be learned. What textbook did they probably use?

Imho there is a large amount of difficulty that can be avoided if the student knows very well linear algebra and introductory functional analysis (e.g. Spectral Theorem, Hilbert spaces) and a bit of representation theory before taking QM. Otherwise QM seems very messy. I think the approach of Feynman part 3 to explain the ideas of QM is the way to go.
"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"
Is there any well known physicist/anything in that set of three or four? Is, in this particular case, the facility for abstract thought a characteristic of higher V? And if it that is the case should this difference ibe an example of the known difference in V between theoreticians and experimentalists?

What do you think about Bezos iq? Between 2.5 and 3 S.D? I think he was not completely right. He could have become a great experimental physicist, his impressive management skills surely could have added lots of value to places like CERN

Iamexpert said...

People talk about the top 10 quarterbacks because those are achievements. Similarly, we talk about intellectual achievements, like the best physicists. But what we avoid discussing are the most athletic or the most intelligent, because those are abilities, and until ability translates into achievement, it's not influential or easily identifiable.

Iamexpert said...

Abstract thought by definition is not V or S or anything else specific. Abstract is the most general transcendable level of thought: pure g.

StevenS123 said...

Well, intelligence is not one dimensional, none of his friends who could understand QM could make anything close to Amazon. There is absolutely no reason or proof to state otherwise. This is why IQ ! = intelligence. It is a useful measurement when observing groups of people, but putting too much weight on individual based on his IQ score is dead wrong. Bezos is a genius in his field, and people with IQs higher than him don't have it in them.

steve hsu said...

Perhaps you should ask Bezos whether he agrees with your take on this... ;-)

FAW said...

James Simmons could be an example of highly abstract thinker who achieved success running a company. I don't know if the organizational structure of a hedge fund sufficiently resembles that of a company like Amazon, such that it could be inferred that he could also run a company like Amazon. At least it demonstrates that a disposition toward abstract thinking does not preclude success in the practical realm; obviously not an interesting point, because it's trivially true, but possibly worth mentioning anyway.

Although various accounts of Bill Gates' student days at Harvard suggest that he probably wasn't at the level of the "abstract geniuses", he at least did decently in Math 55, and is in my opinion almost certainly at a higher level than Bezos. Therefore, he probably has much more of a penchant for abstract thinking than Bezos yet is still practically minded enough to have run a large company.

Al_Li said...


FAW said...

Gates found the solutions and Christos Papadimitriou did the formalization and wrote the paper. That Gates found the solutions is not evidence of him being at the level of the people Bezos described, but is consistent with my description of him.

From Paul Allen's book "Idea Man" (http://infoproc.blogspot.dk/2011/03/paul-allen-idea-man.html) it seems that Gates got a B in Math 55 ("homework load ranged up to 30 hours a week"). It is quite clear from various sources that Gates learned at Harvard that there were people significantly better than him in math - he mentions it in this interview: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040308-596122,00.html. One person better than him was his roommate Andy Braiterman who was first in some math class. He talks about it at 2:25 in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBHJ-8Bch4E. It might not have been Math 55, because Gates says that there were 80 people in the class, but the number might have referred to the people that took the screening test for which math course they should take.

Here is two videos in which Andy Braiterman talks about Gates, one of which Gates himself appears in:



Shawn said...

I suppose it would be wise of Steve not to post such a list. Truly the smartest might feel a bit embarrassed.

Shawn said...

I basically agree with what you wrote. And there's lots of overlap between abilities and achievement.

Since IQ peaks in one's twenties, perhaps looking at Math Olympiad winners and young doctorates in math, science, engineering, physics, and philosophy from elite programs would be a good starting point.

Shawn said...

Both Steve and Gates are smarter than Bezos.

Richard Seiter said...

It would be interesting to hear his response. I wonder how much the theoretical physics/abstract thought/etc. skill set does correlate with g/IQ. I suspect there is a high correlation, but I think it is misleading to believe they are the same thing. There definitely is variation in skill sets among people who IQ test similarly (e.g. I have encountered people who tested similar to me but about whom I would make similar comments as Bezos made about his QM classmates, and let's not start discussing Feynman's IQ again ;-).

Steve, how well do you think standard high ceiling IQ tests do at detecting/differentiating what makes for an excellent theoretical physicist? How important do you think the spatial component is? (as another way of asking the question consider people like Marilyn vos Savant, would they qualify?)

Iamexpert said...

I heard Gates was the second best math student at Harvard, and Steve Balmer was the #1 best math student at Harvard and arguably by extension, the country, and both men were among the 5 richest Americans at their peak. To have BOTH the abstract genius and the real world shrewdness to completely dominate your generation in both math AND real life respectively, indicates spectacular g.

Iamexpert said...

There's a lot more to intelligence than just abstract mathematical reasoning or even the abilities sampled by IQ tests, but seeing as both are so g loaded, they are good predictors of the theoretical overall intelligence we can never fully measure. And there's more to building and amazon than just overall intelligence. There's also specific talents and above all, passion. A one in a thousand intellect multiplied by one in a thousand passion equals bezos' one in a million success. By contrast his classmates' one in 100,000 intellect multiplied by zero passion, equals zero success, hence we've never heard of them.

Yan Shen said...

""Abstract geniuses" like the ones Bezos encountered at Princeton might not have the common sense or practical inclination necessary to run an organization like Amazon, but on the other hand, perhaps a few do! 8^)"

Like someone whose first start-up was acquired by Symantec? ;)

"Most people, when confronted by an obviously superior intellect (even if confined to some narrow subset of abilities), resort to comforting rationalizations: "I could understand quantum mechanics if I really wanted to. But I don't, so who cares!"

Note to self: If I ever meet Steve in person, don't resort to comforting rationalizations...

Cornelius said...

Steve, have you thought deeply about the overrepresentation of physicists among successful entrepreneurs?

About 1/4 of the successful entrepreneurs and VCs I meet have undergrad degrees in physics. I wonder why this is.
Physics does a good job at attracting a large fraction of the students who are smart enough to do it, as opposed to say economics, for which a huge chunk of the students who are smart enough to do economics AND STEM will choose STEM instead. But math is right up there with physics in attracting these high g kids, and it graduates approximately the same number of undergrads. It can't just be a story of high g. What else do physicists have going for them? Is it the way physics is taught? Is it the particular g profile of physicists, i.e. high V and high M?

steve hsu said...

Physics has abstract constructs like those in pure math, but also emphasizes the scientific method and experimentation as the main driver of knowledge acquisition. Physics people will instinctively try to formulate simple (but not too simple) abstract models and test them against data. They are much more likely, in my experience, to have out of the box ideas than engineers.

Math guys are very bright but often are much less practically able than physicists. I am not surprised at Bezos' ability to quickly improve the efforts of a team of engineers or other "specialists" -- it's a common experience for physicists who go into technology or finance.

Hacienda said...

Achievement is arbitrariily defined in the West. Who really achieved more -Khan, Newton,, Mother Teresa, George Lucas, or Mao? If you are honest with yourself, you know you can't come up with an answer.

StevenS123 said...

He would probably say they could, would that be a honest assessment or a humble one. In any case, his opinion doesn't make it so. There is no single measurement that makes you good in all things, there are traits that make you better than most peoplepeople in most things, but not so when we're talking about extremes, the differences are huge. Bezos is an extreme in some trait that makes him Bezos, one of the best CEOs in the world, not every guy with IQ 150+ has it, in fact most of them dont have it. It's incredible that you look at people around you and think that the only thing that sets them apart intellectually is G. Steve, you might be one of 1000 best physicists in the world, but there is absolutely no way, no training that would make you one of best 1000 business men, chess players or musicians in the world. You would probably be solid in chess (2200 raiting) or could play some piece really fast, thats G, but your exceptional physis skill doesn't translate to exceptional other skills. As for the business men, thinga are even worst.

Gail Margolis said...

Iamexpert, Steve Ballmer couldn't have been the #1 math student at Harvard, on the Putnam exam, he came in at Top 100.....are you saying he was better than the other harvard math students who ranked higher? Plus, he was an economics major, how is it possible for him to have been better than actual math majors?

Norkuat said...

But g is simply a correlation... Or is it more? Do you believe in the "strong version" of g ? xD

Norkuat said...

With a degree in math you can easily translate physical concepts into mathematical ideas. Most 2nd year UG usually don`t have these skills well developed even though they have the iq needed. The Cohen book is especially well adapted to this kind of approach, is very non hand waiver. It is long and verbose but very explicit and easy to read.

Iamexpert said...

I could have my facts wrong. I recall hearing this info on some TV show, perhaps A&E' biography of Gates or Balmer, but I 'm not sure.

stevesailer said...

I know about the cat!

stevesailer said...

It's kind of like the overrepresentation among top lawyers and other high achievers (even movie directors) of undergraduate philosophy majors. Physics and philosophy are the big leagues.

Diogenes said...

corn baby,

a ug degree in physics can be practical. especially if its in "engineering physics" or "applied physics". math majors have no better understanding of practical matters than english majors.

Diogenes said...

if philosophy is the big leagues then the big leagues are bush.

Diogenes said...

absolutely right. this is why the g-loadings of subtests varies from one population to another. (the ashkenazim score average on spatial tests for example)

iq is useful when making decisions about a large group of people only. the individual's g score is merely the projection of the point representing his subtest scores onto the principal component of the GROUP'S scores. that is, two people with identical g scores may have very different "cognitive profiles".

two anecdotes on the absurdity of g:


and it's such a "slam dunk" i'll put it in all caps:



herr professor steve hsu's nemesis herr professor steve gould was right. g is bullshit.

Hacienda said...

Depends on who is doing the philosophy.
Kant, Wittgenstein, Russell, Socrates (for his time), Lao Tze. These are the big leagues.

I include Lao Tze because he more than anyone else has caused the marginalization of religions on planet earth.

Diogenes said...

Wittgenstein, Russell are T-ball.

Kant and Socrates are big league. of course non-western philosophy is a contradiction in terms, but i was a big fan of the tao-te-ching and the chuang-tsu when i was 14. but i think the upanishads, the sutras, patanjali, and the bhagavad gita are even better. it's not racism. like english, chinese is unsuited for philosophy, but for different reasons.

really philosophy is plato, aristotle, aquinas, kant, hegel, marx, nietzsche, heidegger. everyone else is a a pretender, a faker. philosophy is greek and german, as heidegger said. again, i have no german ancestry, although my surname is schwitzerdeutsch. it's just the way it is.

Diogenes said...

g is a reality. it's just not as real as its promoters claim. AND it's measured with the wrong distributions. i wonder how much more robust the results would be if the multivariate normal distribution of "cognitive tests" were abandoned.

Hacienda said...

Interesting comment. I've heard this argument many times. So there is a tremendous amount of circle jerk in this idea or it is simply "true".

Kant is quite technical, so gets profound respect. As if he were laying out a mathematical first principles.
But that's not life, and that's not really philosophy, either. You could argue both ways. Or better you could say there is really no "argument" to be made. Which is more non-white way of looking at this. Again, not to be "raciss"!

Sean Schubert said...

Someone should buy Bezos a copy of The No A##hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Bob Sutton. Just because your title has a capital C in it, doesn't mean you should have the power to demean people.

I suspect Bezos is one of those well-known types of people that treat waiters, waitresses, and other people "below" him with utter contempt and disregard.

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