Sunday Snapshots: Issue #100

In which I write about The American Story by David Rubenstein

Hey everyone,
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!

We’re into triple digits. It feels a bit special and yet it feels mostly the same. I’ll flesh out more of my thoughts and we’ll take a victory lap a few issues from now when we hit two full years. But I wanted to take the time to thank all of you for your giving my writing your only non-renewable resource — your time. If you ever want to have a conversation with me or have any feedback, please feel free to reply to this email or sending me a message on Twitter.

In this issue of Snapshots, I want to write about:

  • The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David Rubenstein

  • Thoughts on the 2020 Annual Letter to Amazon’s Shareholders by Jeff Bezos

  • How the biggest disruption to business ended up entrenching the most powerful business of them all

  • Rembrandt’s masterpiece, envy and the idiosyncratic life, and mushroom in coffee?!

Book of the week

If I was a very wealthy person, I would do exactly what David Rubenstein does — talk to the smartest people in the world about what they have learned from their lives, with a particular focus on historical events and personalities. I would fund historical sites and wildlife preservation projects. I cannot imagine a better purpose in my life that would align better with my interests and values.

The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians is one of Rubenstein’s projects. It’s a series of interviews with the best-in-class biographers in the country about the most pivotal personalities in the history of the United States. These include Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King Jr., Dwight Eisenhower, etc.

My favorite bits included stories about how Benjamin Franklin understood that the support of the French people was necessary for the French involvement in the American Revolution, how Alexander Hamilton made Washington, D.C. the capital of the country, how MLK understood the political art of timing, and how Eisenhower was one of the most effective Presidents ever.

I highly recommend listening to it as you get a higher fidelity experience that includes the tones and pauses of these historians as they talk about the subjects of their work — subjects that they are intimately familiar with, yet who are separated by the vast expanse of time. The only downside is that the conversation with Robert Caro about Lyndon Johnson was not recorded. But then again, what else is this newsletter for — enjoying 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 issues about The Years of Lyndon Johnson series.

Conspicuously missing from these series is the exploration of one man whose deep contradictions have captured my imagination — Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the country. More on him next week.

Long read of the week

In the winter of my last year of high school, I read a book called India After Gandhi which was exactly what its name suggested — a comprehensive history of India after the death of India’s sole Founding Father, M.K. Gandhi, in 1948. The preface of the book laid out an argument that ran along the lines of “India is a conglomerate of so many different identities that it should not exist as a political entity. And yet it does.”

That preface always comes to my mind whenever I think about Amazon. A conglomerate that spans every inch of the physical and digital world should not excel across such vast domains — and yet it does.

Along this path on world domination, (sometimes) fellow DC resident Jeff Bezos’ annual report to his shareholders offers a glimpse into how he thinks. They have included every thing about setting high standards, the infamous Bar Raiser test for hiring, the “Day 1” mentality, and much more. So, when 24th and last annual letter to the shareholders was released last week, I knew I would have to write about it.

There are a couple of things I noticed:

  • Regulation as entrenching incumbents: Bezos makes a big deal of his goal to become “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work” rhetoric. First of all, the “Earth’s” in those phrase are nods to his space ambitions and come across as very whimsical. But perhaps more insidious is that by raising the bar for how much employees are paid and what the average working conditions, Amazon can invite regulation that will make it’s competition weaker. How? Amazon might be one player in the labor market, but it is a very, very, very large one. You might have heard of the “butterfly effect” in which a single butterfly flapping its wings faster leads to faster winds in some part of the world leads to something dramatic in another part of the world. Well, when Amazon flaps its wings, it’s a hurricane. If it invites labor regulation, then the thinking has to be around entrenching its own business. As regulation increases, the cost of compliance increases. Upstarts have to work harder and pay more to attract the same level of talent. This does not mean that the regulation should not be enacted, but that policy makers should understand the tradeoffs. Sometimes the tradeoffs of entrenching an incumbent are worth it for the broad societal positives, sometimes it’s not so clear.

  • Differentiation is Survival and the Universe Wants You to be Typical: Let’s switch from the cynical to the delighted version of the author. Bezos writes about differentiation towards the end of the letter. I am including almost the entire quote here and it speaks for itself:

    In what ways does the world pull at you in an attempt to make you normal? How much work does it take to maintain your distinctiveness? To keep alive the thing or things that make you special?

    I know a happily married couple who have a running joke in their relationship. Not infrequently, the husband looks at the wife with faux distress and says to her, “Can’t you just be normal?” They both smile and laugh, and of course the deep truth is that her distinctiveness is something he loves about her. But, at the same time, it’s also true that things would often be easier – take less energy – if we were a little more normal.

    This phenomenon happens at all scale levels. Democracies are not normal. Tyranny is the historical norm. If we stopped doing all of the continuous hard work that is needed to maintain our distinctiveness in that regard, we would quickly come into equilibrium with tyranny.

    We all know that distinctiveness – originality – is valuable. We are all taught to “be yourself.” What I’m really asking you to do is to embrace and be realistic about how much energy it takes to maintain that distinctiveness. The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.

    You have to pay a price for your distinctiveness, and it’s worth it. The fairy tale version of “be yourself” is that all the pain stops as soon as you allow your distinctiveness to shine. That version is misleading. Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy or free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously.

Business move of the week

Following up on the theme of Amazon seizing an opportunity when it sees one, I wrote about how Amazon was hiring 100,000 new warehouse and delivery workers in March 2020. It’s fascinating to read it now, with the stock price up 60% since that weekend in the year that we would all like to forget. I am including it in full here for new and old readers alike, with some thoughts after the quote.

When I read Social Capital’s 2019 Annual Report last week, I highlighted a particular section that talked about how tech companies haven’t been able to effectively spend their R&D cash on the externalities that they have helped create. My annotation to this paragraph was a question: “Who are you pissing off and how can you still keep them on your side?”

Jeff Bezos just showed us how.

In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since ‘08 against an invisible enemy, Amazon is hiring 100,000 workers. That’s a powerful way to push back against rising calls about your increasing power over the American economic system. Even though it highlights the problem, I’d bet that no one will criticize Amazon on this move. 

Yet, they are not doing it out of the generosity of their hearts. Stay-at-home orders across the country have led to a surge in online shopping and about 50% of American e-commerce flows through Amazon. Someone still needs to pack those orders in warehouses and deliver them to your doorstep. It’s no surprise that the company has a lot of customer goodwill – low prices and one-day shipping mean that divinely discontent customer is mostly content these days. After this move, they might have labor goodwill as well. 100,000 workers is a large number and I suspect (although correct me if I’m wrong) that many of them have been let go from restaurants and retail jobs. They will see Amazon as a safe haven for tough times. Once you’ve accrued labor goodwill, political goodwill follows quickly.  

And there is little downside to this move. The demand and supply are both artificially up due to COVID-19. Both will move in tandem once things get back to normal, however long that may be. It would be easy to cut back on this expansion. 

In every crisis, there are seeds of opportunity. Bezos intends to grow an oak tree from this one. An unprecedented disruption to business might end up entrenching the most powerful business of them all.

Face to say that this is largely in line with what happened. Amazon ran the world for the last year. And most of the discussion here was about the physical goods business line. Their AWS — Amazon Web Services — division is the defining of “business is booming” as everyone does everything they can online. The very essential block of the internet — computing power — being provided by the 800-pound gorilla that seems to be the MegaCorp that we are warned about.

Odds and ends of the week

A pretty wide range of things this week — a video, a short post, and an explainer:

🖼️ Why This is Rembrandt’s Masterpiece: I’ve been stuck by the Netflix-driven True Crime bug. Top of the list for me has been the This is A Robbery about the 1990 art heist of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One of the painting stolen in that heist was The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. This video essay captures the characteristic of what makes another Rembrandt painting — The Night Watch — a masterpiece. More than a video about the particular painting, it’s about how to read any painting.

👀 Lead an Idiosyncratic Life and Envy of Others Goes Down: Envy is a tough emotion to navigate. At times in my life, it’s been motivational. At times, it’s led to destructive thinking. Everyone I know and have talked about this with has felt this to some extent. Ben Casnocha — whose 10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman might be one of the pieces of writing that has changed my life the most — wrote this post back in 2008 about leading a life that is so different that it’s difficult to compare your path to anyone else. It’s one of those pieces of writing that you can build a life around. A must-read for anyone who faces feelings of self-doubt. So pretty much everyone.

🍄 You've just had some kind of mushroom by Aja Singer: No matter who you are, if you use Instagram, you have been inundated with ads about mushroom-laced coffee. What does that even mean? I have been confused for the past two years since these drinks because popular. Thankfully, Aja Singer who writes the great For The Love newsletter clarifies all of this. Aja is exactly the kind of writer about whom I wrote about last week’s section about Substack:

What gets lost is the celebration of the written word that the platform has enabled. I, a non-contributing member to Substack’s bottomline revenue, have been able to create an entire identity around my words. So have countless others because of the ease of getting started and putting your thoughts out there without having to worry about anything. This has led to an explosion of creativity.

Simply put, if I had a dollar for every person who expressed some version of the “I want to have a blog” statement to me over the last 6-7 years and never published anything until they used Substack and are now prolific writers, I would be giving a certain fellow DC-er named Mr. Bezos a run for his money.

That wraps up this week’s newsletter. You can check out the previous issues here.

If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.

Until next Sunday,