What do you get when you cross a mercenary & missionary?

In tech-leaning podcast I hear the terms mercenary and missionary used to compare two types of workers.

  • Mercenaries are hired guns who show up, do the work, collect a check and move on.
  • Missionaries are people who believe in the cause, go the extra mile, and want to be part of something bigger.

Related to this is an idea that company founders are good investments. There’s Peter Thiel‘s Founders Fund and Ashton Kutcher told Kara Swisher that he prefers to invest in founders. The assumption here is that founders are missionaries.

That’s true, but what if we created a false spectrum? Why can’t founders be missionaries and mercenaries? We will call them maniacs.

The person who crystalized this for me was Jeff Bezos, or at least the Jeff Bezos in Brad Stone’s book The Everything StoreThat Bezos is a maniac (and he probably had to be).

Before starting Amazon:

Bezos was in his midtwenties at the time, five foot eight inches tall, already balding and with the pasty, rumpled appearance of a committed workaholic. He had spent five years on Wall Street and impressed seemingly everyone he encountered with his keen intellect and boundless determination.

Bezos seemed to love the idea of the nonstop workday; he kept a rolled-up sleeping bag in hs office and some egg-crate foam on his windowsill in case he needed to bunk down for the night.

As Amazon grew, Bezos infected others with his relentlessness. In 1996 Amazon needed a new warehouse facility. They found a building in a seedy part of Seattle.

Parking was scarce and expensive. Nicholas Lovejoy suggested to Bezos that the company subsidize bus passes for employees, but Bezos scoffed at the idea. “He didn’t want employees to leave work to catch the bus,” Lovejoy says. “He wanted them to have their cars there so there was never any pressure to go home.”

One employee said about Bezos, “If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you’re good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.”

Bezos wanted Amazon to stock everything and at the lowest prices (missionary), but also do so faster and better than anyone else, no matter the cost (mercenary).

Through Stone’s book you get the impression that Bezos did not have executive meetings that began with rounds of kumbaya. Rather, Amazon sounds more like the military. Maybe Amazon had to be that way.

Cal Newport writes that rare and valuable jobs require rare and valuable skills. Charlie Munger writes that successful capital allocation is “not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.” Howard Marks writes that “investors are always looking for it…but the silver bullet doesn’t exist.”  Ben Horowitz writes that solving problems is more of a lead bullet approach.

Do you have to be a maniac – a mercenary and missionary – to do the work it takes?

One of the early employees who did a lot was Joy Covey. After  four years she left to spend more time with her family, but as Stone was working on his book she emailed him and wrote:

As I read the (Isaacson) Jobs book I really had to wonder if that (sometimes-harsh) intensity isn’t an essential element when so much of what you want to do requires boldness, immediacy, ruthless prioritization, and risk.

I even had an insight and question about myself, that maybe I haven’t begun to really find my own limits, since I have not, aside from those times of highest stakes and intensity at Amazon, really run free following my own insights and directions without being too accommodating of others.

Do you hear what she’s saying? She’s pointing out that things don’t change on their own. If you want to dent the universe you’ll need to swing a big enough hammer.

Many of the stories about Bezos reminded me of this column by Malcolm Gladwell:

Whenever I take the freeway west from Toronto to my parents’ house, I pass a park where I ran a cross-country race many years ago. It was the county championships. I had just turned thirteen, and had been a “serious” runner for no more than six weeks, which meant that I knew almost nothing at all about running, except that you were supposed to run as hard as you could for as long as you could. My coach told me to stay close to the front, and I took the instruction literally, the way that dutiful thirteen-year-olds do. So I attached myself to the best runner in the field—a fifteen-year-old named Lloyd Schmidt—and did not let go.

The race began by winding along a series of trails and roads on the fringes of the park. It was a warm autumn afternoon. I remember the illicit thrill of running with the leaders, where I knew I did not belong. My lungs and my legs gradually slipped out of synch. I fell first half a breath short, then a full breath short. The world around me grew hazy. We came to a steep hill. My coach was standing there. “Now,” he said. I willed myself to pass Schmidt, accelerating off the top of the hill. That’s the part of the course that I see from the highway every time I drive by, and it never fails to send my stomach sideways. The next thing I remember was Lloyd Schmidt holding me up at the finish. I remember lying on the ground, slowly bringing my knees up to my chest. I remember the panic of not being able to get enough air into my lungs. I had done what everyone always says you are supposed to do as a human being. I had given it my all. And I realized that what everyone says you should always do was so painful that I never wanted to do it again.

I think that’s what it’s like to work with Bezos.

You can accomplish something incredible but it’s going to take incredible work.

Any part of success is skill and luck and maniacs try to increase their skill as much as possible. Time is one way to quantify this.

Bezos slept at the office and worked long hours. Bill Belichick and Ernie Adams work 100+ hour weeks. Munger’s children said they never spent much time with him except for vacations at their lake house. John Boyd’s worked long hours and late at night.  Gene Kranz, a NASA flight director for Apollo 11, 13, and other missions wrote, that flight engineers packed their bags for long days, not knowing when they might be home.

Mercenaries and missionaries go home from work, maniacs go home with work.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.


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