April 26, 2017
In his annual letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos answered a question that had been following him around for twenty years: what does Day 2 look like. Bezos painted a bleak picture of stasis, irrelevance, excruciating painful decline, and ultimately death before describing four strategies to avoid falling into Day 2.¹ Bezos’s letter reminded me that “writing is a medium for crystallizing thoughts” which is how my friend described it recently. He introduces very few new ideas, but did so with such clarity and vigor that they felt fresh and infused his letter with an energy that made me excited to learn more.
Bezos’ letter was a reminder of how writing is, as one of my friends recently reminded me, a “medium of crystallizing thoughts.” Taken individually, Bezos introduce very few new ideas, however, he presented them in such a tight package, supported by helpful anecdotes, that the letter felt fresh and almost buzzing with energy.
The letter gave a great answer to a question I spend a lot of time thinking about: why write?
Tonight, after listening to a moderated discussion tonight with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, I came away both with a new sense of gratitude for my good fortune and with a new answers to that question. Write because it helps you understand.
The letter to shareholders demonstrated this, but the lesson really came home listening to Sheryl talk about her experience following her husband’s unexpected death. Describing feelings of isolation and losing her best friend and partner, Sheryl found she had a new found ability: ability to silence any room which she walked into. Unsure about what to do, thirty days following Dave’s death, she did not feel done grieving. Out of ideas about what to do, she posted a letter on Facebook about her experience. It was read by millions (though, I admit, I had not read it until tonight) and immediately started a conversation. Through writing, not only did Sheryl crystallize some of her thoughts, but she was able to create connections with people.
I would argue that Sheryl’s experience is not unique and in fact those benefits of writing go far beyond those dealing with grief. Writing is one of the ways in which we learn. It’s an active process that creates new connections, generates new ideas, and produces new perspectives. That’s what Sheryl demonstrates with her writing and it’s what Jeff Bezos demonstrates in his.
A caveat: Taking advantage of the opportunities inherent in writing require more than showing up. Showing up is not enough. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Showing up is rule #1. You need to do it. To be considered a writer, a writer must write. It’s a tautology. At the same time, Bezos reminds his readers to be skeptical of proxies. It’s a good reminder for any writer who may have begun to believe that the process is what it takes to succeed. Tracking how many writing sessions they have completed, how many words they’ve typed or how many pieces they’ve posted is not an understanding of your growth.
Growth requires resilience because it’s hard. If it were easy, we would not need to overcome or persevere. And if we didn’t need to persevere, everyone would see success. The hard part is not sitting down and writing. Though your subconscious may fight you, what’s truly challenging is writing something that says something. That’s what Sheryl did when she wrote her letter on Facebook. It’s what Bezos did when he penned his shareholder letter. Those are not just words on a screen or page. They say something. That’s why we write.
¹ If you haven’t read Amazon’s Letter to Shareholders for 2016 yet, you can find it here. Included, as always, is the original letter from 1997 which remains one of my all time favorite documents on business and philosophy.
Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!