Experimentation is The Key

To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.

AWS, Marketplace and Prime are all examples of bold bets at Amazon that worked, and we’re fortunate to have those three big pillars.

— Jeff Bezos

Something about this letter in 1997 resonates with me. I’ve always had an inkling that experimentation is the only way to live a fulfilled life, to which this portion of the Amazon shareholder letter may act as a confirmation for me. How else can you learn about the endless pursuits of life, apart from experimentation?

There really is no alternative to trying things for yourself. No one can learn it for you. No one can try it out for you. It amazes me to see people who stay in the same job for 5, 10, 20, 30 years and beyond. Did they truly pick what they loved and were obsessed with? Was it the right career path for them? Was there a better option they missed out on? No one will ever know, least of all them. None of us will know what we are capable of and what our true passion is, until we try as many different things as we can with the time we have been given.

This principle applies for everything: sports, marriage, work, food, hobbies, travel, etc. Every avenue of life has a countless number of possibilities and outcomes. We owe it to ourselves (and to a grand extent, humanity) to test the waters in every respect. It is a tragedy to witness anyone come to the end of their life, only to be marred with regret and anguish over their acts of omission — their inaction and apathy toward the unknown.

I would never have known that writing was my way to success without having first spent years experimenting with different skills and ventures such as programming, drawing, singing, acting, podcasting, marketing, weightlifting, inventing, investing, retailing and consulting. I tried and failed at them all. Some lessons had to be learnt twice or even three times, because I was adamant in making some experiments a forced success. But it doesn’t work that way.