Article in Brief: When Jeff Bezos had the idea about an internet bookstore, he made a choice between wise and right. Here’s how.
At age 30, Jeff Bezos was already the youngest, hot-shot SVP at a major New York hedge fund.
He was married. Lived on the Upper West Side. And that’s when he had an idea about an internet bookstore. The kind of bookstore you couldn’t do between four walls — one that could offer millions (vs. thousands) of titles.
When he told his boss at the time about the idea, he was told it was probably better left to someone without a good job like his.
You, no doubt, know how this story played out. But what you may not know is how Bezos came to make the decision to leave his secure, fast-track, power job for what could have been a pipe dream.
We’ll come back to that.
Doing the Right Thing
For years, we had this saying at my organization: “Do the right thing.”
The idea was when you found yourself in a situation with a client, a provider or a colleague, and you had to choose between two options, you should choose the “right” thing to do.
The problem this created is that, in many situations, you’re not choosing between right and wrong. You’re choosing between right and right.
When Bezos had his big idea, his choice was between staying in a good job (right decision) or taking a risk on new venture (also a right decision). You could even flip this and say both could have been wrong decisions. His New York job could have gone south or his startup could have failed. But the decision was never between right and wrong.
When Facing Right-Versus-Right Decisions
The study of ethics is essentially the practice of making right versus right decisions.
There are four classic ethical dilemmas:
- Truth vs. Loyalty: Do you obey the law (even if it’s wrong), or do you go to bat for family or a friend (even if it’s illegal)?
- Justice vs. Mercy: Should someone get punished for something they did, or should they be given a second chance?
- Individual vs. Group: Should we protect or reward one person at the expense of the group, or should we protect/reward the group at the expense of an individual?
- Short-term vs. Long-term: Should we do whatever it takes to survive or profit today (even if it harms people or the environment in the long-run), or should we do whatever is best long-term (even if it harms people today)?
These are tough, right-versus-right situations, aren’t they?
Doing the Wise Thing
This past year, our CEO and president made a strategic decision to update “do the right thing,” to “do the wise thing.”
This seemingly subtle change makes a huge difference, as you face tough decisions as a leader.
Doing the wise things means considering the short- and long-term ripple effects of the options you can take. Then it forces you to fast-forward 10, 20, 30 years and ask, “Would I regret that decision?”
Doing the wise thing means choosing the option you would least regret making.
It’s a simply, but profound guide!
Why Bezos Chose to Leave
In a conversation with his brother, Mark, at the most recent Summit conference in Los Angeles, Jeff Bezos said that as he faced the decision to stay in NYC or leave to start an internet bookstore, he projected himself forward to age 80.
“When I’m 80 years old, I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have,” he said. “…our biggest regrets are acts of omission, paths not taken. They haunt us.”
He went on to say that, at 80, he would have regretted not trying. And he would not have regretted trying and failing.
I’d say he made a wise decision. What about you?
What Will You Regret?
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this long-term perspective over the holiday season and new year.
What am I NOT doing that I might regret?
What am I doing that may ultimately never matter to the older, wiser me in 20 years?
To be honest, my answers have shaken me a bit.
What about you? What wise choice should you be making right now? What will your 80-year-old self think about who you are and what you’re doing right now?
Image Credit: ptufts on Flickr
Keith Reynold Jennings is a marketing executive and writer focused on the intersections of servant leadership, modern marketing and breakthrough thinking. Connect through Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook or email him directly.
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