Jeff Bezos Had an Epiphany in College That Changed His Life and It’s a Valuable Lesson for Aspiring Founders

Jeff Bezos Had an Epiphany in College That Changed His Life and It's a Valuable Lesson for Aspiring Founders

As a company founder, you should know that only one thing is certain: virtually everything that determines the outcome of your entrepreneurial efforts will change. Factors outside your control — customers needs, technology, and the competitive landscape — will evolve.  And your company’s success will hinge on whether you turn these outside forces into headwinds or tailwinds for growth.

To benefit from these outside forces, know yourself — specifically your strengths and weaknesses and the challenges and opportunities that motivate you. You can boost your venture’s odds of success by aiming your world-beating strengths at solving the problems that most engage your attention. 

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO whose net worth is about $130 billion, recognized the importance of this idea while he was in college. As a Princeton physics major, he and his roommate spent hours trying to solve a math problem — making no progress. A friend in their class had the solution within minutes — then wrote three pages of equations to explain it to Bezos and his roommate, according to CNBC.

Bezos — who had ambitions to “make a contribution” — realized from this friend that he would never be one of the top 50 physicists so he would not be able to make a contribution there, CNBC explained.

So he switched his major to electrical engineering and computer science and committed himself to starting and running his own business. In 1994 while working at a hedge fund, Bezos learned that the Internet was growing at a 2,300 percent annual rate. This set him on a journey to capture that tailwind by starting an online bookstore — Amazon (its original name was — in 1995.

Here are four things to take away from this Bezos story that can help you lead your venture to its full potential.

Check your ambition.

You need to assess honestly how ambitious you are. Bezos — as a top student at an elite university — wanted to be the best in the world at something. 

Are you that ambitious? If so, do you have the world-class talent needed to get there? If you aim lower — to be the best at your field in the city or state where you live — odds improve that you have the skills needed to achieve that more modest ambition.

Rank your skills.

To rank your skills, do what Bezos did: compete with the most talented people in your field. If you clearly come out ahead, repeat this process with a more talented group of rivals.

If you realize that you are in the middle of the pack — or near the bottom, find a different field in which to compete.

Bezos was able to switch from physics to computer science and electrical engineering. His Summa Cum Laude degree proved that he had the potential to be tops in that field. 

The same logic applies if you’re trying to assess your skills at selling, raising capital, attracting and motivating top talent or developing new products — which are critical to startup success.

Find your passion.

Excelling in a field may not mean you are doing the right thing. Bezos clearly lacked sufficient passion to pursue a career as an electrical engineer.

After college, he worked for a hedge fund — rising quickly to become a senior vice president there. If he had loved running money, he could have stayed in that field. It was not until he started Amazon that he found a passion at which to aim his talent and ambition.

The takeway? Focus your startup on capturing an opportunity fueled by your passion for the problems it presents and your world-class skill at solving them.

Run the marathon.

You ought to be in the race for the long run. Since Amazon now does much more than sell books online, we know that Bezos has been running the marathon for the last 25 years. 

This brings up a final lesson from Bezos: be relentless. That is, recognize that factors outside of your control will change and that you need to apply your talent and passion to finding new ways to grow that turn those outside forces into tailwinds that push your company forward.

You won’t end up being the world’s wealthiest person but doing these four things can bring you closer.

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