February 5, 2012

Jeff Bezos Taught Me When to Quit

I never actually met Jeff Bezos. But he taught me an important career management lesson.

[Click vào đây để đọc bằng tiếng Việt.]

Jeff Bezos taught me when to quit.

It was fall 1999, the height of the Internet bubble.  A few months earlier I had graduated from business school.  In the months leading up to graduation I had done my best to land a job with a dot-com.  I was convinced then that the Internet would change the business world.  I wanted to be a part of that.

I got one dot-com job offer — Amazon.com.  The trouble was it was in their finance group, not my main interest.  And the salary was so low it would be difficult to put food on the table and pay my student loans.  I so wanted to join the Internet biz, though, I convinced myself that I should just get in the door.  I could switch groups later.

I moved across the country to Seattle.   A month into my new dream job I was miserable.

“Finance” sounded glamorous.  But my job was anything but glamorous.  My main responsibility was sitting in a small office all day and maintaining a monster spreadsheet to track and administer the  salaries of thousands of Amazon employees.  [Yes, even mighty Amazon had problems managing its internal systems.]

Sometimes I would pull data as requested by the Product or Marketing teams as they ran analyses to measure marketing and product sales results.  The low point came when an undergrad summer intern gave me an especially painful data request.  I spent most of the day figuring out array formulas and tracking down small data irregularities.  I thought “Damn, I want to be the one doing cool business case analyses, not being a data monkey so others can have fun!”

Then there was my boss, Bill.  His leadership was textbook terrible.

Bill didn’t sit with us in our small grunt office.  As far as I could tell his job was to take the analyses I did and present them at the meeting with Vice Presidents of different departments.  Then he would come back and tell me to modify my analysis based on feedback from the meeting.  He didn’t even know how the spreadsheets worked.  Not once did he invite me to one of these meetings.  I came to see him as a zero-value-add messenger between me the the Vice Presidents.

As sucky as things were I thought I could tough it out for a year and then figure out a way to move to the Product or Marketing teams.  I still loved the dot-com biz.

Then the last straw hit.

Another new MBA was hired in my group.  I found out her salary was higher than mine, although I had been told that my salary was “standard for new MBAs.”  Adding insult to injury, I had deeper financial experience and skills than the newcomer.  I asked my boss to raise my salary to match hers.

“No.  You accepted your salary when you accepted the offer.”  He wouldn’t discuss it further.

I was fuming.  Then Jeff Bezos showed me the way.

It was at Amazon’s quarterly “All Hands Meeting” to announce and discuss results for Q3 1999.  Everyone in the company attended.

Bezos led the meeting like the master leader he is.  He exuded energy, enthusiasm and confidence as he discussed results and Amazon’s bright future.  At the end of the meeting he took questions from regular Amazonians.

Someone asked “What do I do if I have a bad boss?  I’ve tried to talk to him but he won’t listen to me and things aren’t getting better.”  The questioner added a few more details.  It sounded like an unpleasant situation, and the boss did indeed sound like a bad boss.  Just like my situation.

Bezos surprised me with his blunt answer in front of thousands of people.

“You should quit.”

I was upset at first.  Then I realized that Bezos’ leaders were the leaders, not me.  No CEO wants to babysit disputes between leaders and staff.  Either the CEO figures out the leader is no good and fires the leader or the staff should quit and find something better.  Bezos probably didn’t even know Bill, and as far as I knew the higher-ups thought Bill was doing a great job.

I realized that Bezos was right.  There was only one solution.

The next week I marched into Bill’s office.

“I want a raise.  It’s fair.”


“Ok.  I quit.  Today is day one of my two weeks’ notice.”

I had just quit my first post-MBA job 6 weeks after starting.  I had student loans to pay back and only a few dollars in the bank.  I had no idea what I was going to do.

And still I left Bill’s office feeling like a million dollars.

It turned out to be one of my best decisions.

Later I landed a much cooler job at Yahoo!.  A better position and a higher salary in the world’s center of Internet business, Silicon Valley.  Oh yeah, and better weather.  If I had stayed at Amazon I don’t think I would have done as well.

I learned that knowing when to quit — and having the courage to quit — is a necessary part of managing your career.

Thanks Jeff!

[Enjoy this story?  Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to email notifications.]

  • Viet Hong Le

    Great story. 

    • Thanks for the comment Viet Hong.  It was a pretty big moment for me.  That job wasn’t right for me in the first place and it was a good decision to leave it.

      • I am now in the same situation, I am a fresh graduate though, not a MBA. I has just left a job with good salary because I don’t feel I have passion for it, people around me think I’m crazy and all and sometimes I doubt that too lol. But after reading this story of yours, I have faith again that I will soon find my dream job :) Thank you Chris!

        Btw, I just found your blog today and it is great !

        • It takes a lot of strength to follow your own inner voice when everyone around you says something different. I’m proud of you! It’s only a matter of time before you find something bigger and better.

          • Thank you for your kind words! I do hope so :)

  • Still, they hired an MBA to do such data jobs?  Amazoneeeee.

    • It was a time of rapid growth at Amazon.  Things don’t always fit perfectly.  Someone had to do the work.

  • Kim Ngân

    Google Translate is a disaster, Chris ơi. It translated “How Jeff taught me when to stop smoking”. Translation is never a machine job.

    • Yeah, I noticed that.  Pretty funny.  It’s an experiment.  How is the rest of the translation?  Most of it looked ok to me.

      • Kim Ngân

        I think it conveyed 50% what you said. Btw, I like the happy ending of the story, it’s very uplifting ;)

  • Your situation happens to many and usually, it is tough to make a choice between staying still or leaving. Be patient or quit? In my view, it needs thoughtful consideration  before making such kind of decision. You made a great decision!

    • Thanks Viet Thang.

      Bold action, while sometimes it leads you down the wrong path, is necessary to get what you want out of life.  When I review the bold actions in my life some have failed.  But those bold failures have been more than outweighed by the bold actions that succeeded beyond my imagination.

      I’m reminded of Goethe’s quote: 

      “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.  Begin it now.”

  • Thu

    A very good story on career management, Chris. Thank you for sharing. :)

  • Van Tran


  • Van Tran

    Hi Chris,

    I recommend the book “The Dip” of Seth Godin, a little book that teach you when to quit and when to stick.

    • Thanks Van.  I’ll check it out.  Knowing when to stay and when to move on is critical.

  • Ngocthangtran

    Yes, your decision was made at the right time and the right place. Only move can give you big chance for promotion. Thank you for share your story

  • I love this: ” I followed my heart.  The universe took care of me.”
    Million Thanks to you,  Mr. Chris. I have just made my decision today is also my fist day of notice. And Just like you were! I had no idea what I am going to do. 
    Today is really great day!

    • Wow Ngoc Hoa, congratulations!  I’m glad you are feeling the limitless possibility available to all of us if we will just have the courage to take action.

      • Thank you Mr. Chris

        I am Available for the new job in next 2 and a half  months :D
        Take a look at this picture, what do you think Chris?

      • I like this post and have just finish a quick translation in to Vietnamese. Are you ok if i post that on my blog?

      • elgallorojo

        I quit a job in that manner once, and the universe definitely did not take care of me.

        • Sorry to hear that.

          Still, I think it’s better to take those risks and pursue opportunity than to live in fear of risk and accept something that doesn’t feel right.

  • Especially now.  Even though ehg economy seems dire, if you dont act to follow your chosen path at this time you will be stuck in it for potentially a long time.  When the industry is disrupted is the time to disrupt yourself and find where you’re new path is.

    Thats how I see it anyway.

    • Yep.  I like to think of it as taking control of your destiny.

      • customerspecs

         I did the same a couple years back and  I also felt like a million dollars for my last 2 weeks.

  • Maps

    I agree that you should quit when your ‘boss is bad’, but in a way I also think that what you did was also stupid.Amazon is a great company and with effort you would have climbed the ladders there if you were good enough. Jeff Bezos -is- a smart guy and he is taking the company in the right direction as opposed to Yahoo!, which is a giant of yesterday.
    You had been there for six weeks and had a problem with someone else being hired who got paid more? Why did she get paid more? I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that salaries are never equal. They are part of the negotiations and are often affected by the situation the new employee is in. A lot of companies pay more for certain employees because of their background situation. If an employee is qualified and shows promise, then companies often offer a supporting hand, because otherwise the employee simply could not afford to work there. A lot of companies pay more to an employee if the employee asks for it when it is about ‘their value’ and not about value of someone else.
    It was incredibly stupid to complain that someone else is getting paid more, when you had been there for six weeks. You didn’t sound much smarter than your boss there.I would never allow a new employee march in after six weeks and ask for a raise, unless they invented the next iPhone or iPad. You did spreadsheets. You would have gotten a ‘no’ from any and every executive I know of.

    • Ben Hoffman

      Just to clarify, this happened in 1999.  Amazon and Yahoo were completely different companies 13 years ago.  So the decision was completely different.

      • And I thought that ”
        It was fall 1999, the height of the Internet bubble.” was really clear.

    • My first flamer.  It’s an honor.

    • Feralmonkey

      hopefully I don’t work wherever you work!

  • JamesMoriarty

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • I didn’t know who Jeff Bezos was but read this article anyway as I have been through a similar experience twice in my career.

    We are bought up (traditionally) to generally believe that hard work and toughing it out will win through but if it’s really unfair and you know it then it takes a little bit of a risk to move forward……..I always ask “whats the worst that can really happen?” 9 times of 10 I realise it’s nothing I won’t be able to handle anyway.

    Have a nice day.

    • “What’s the worst that could happen?” is an awesome question to ask yourself when you have a big decision to make.  Usually it’s not so bad.

      Also good to ask yourself the flip side of the question: “What’s the best that could happen?”  

      When you look at the answers to both questions the right path becomes clear.

  • Wonderful story.  This mimics my adventure in Amazon finance as well where I got hired to do BI (I thought I would apply statistics to large data sets and drive company decisions making) but instead I was a “backup metrics manager”.

    I would have NEVER taken the job if I knew I was to be relegated to pulling data for other people.  It made me feel so small and so weak as the fat bloated finance VP got his ass kissed but couldn’t even understand what a “distribution” was.  

    I also realized that I was nothing more then a pawn and that unless I was the boss, It was MY FAULT for not doing something to change that. So I did no work for the last 3 months and worked on my startup on their time while getting paid.  It made me feel like the prince of theives sticking it to those who thought I was dirt.

    now I am the boss, I tripled my salary,  I am way happier and all I see is that fat bloated pig of a boss not giving a shit at all.  That is the truth I fear, the higher up  you get, the less you care about little people.   

    I will never make that mistake.  The Amazon experience has shaped my executive life profoundly.   

    • It’s always “our fault” if things aren’t the way we want them to be.  Taking responsibility for your situation, not blaming others and taking action is the only way to go. 

      Yeah I was pissed off at the time.  Bill’s action (or lack of it) created a situation that was intolerable for me.  I didn’t blame him for it, but I did realize that radical action was required.  

      It was a great lesson.  Sounds like you learned the same one.

      • Jim

        After growing a web company by 800% that could not afford me, the reward is more family in the group. Yep, need to know when to leave.

    • Steam

      Wow, you are quite thief, aren’t you? In the trade between salary and work, decided to keep taking their money, but give them no work, because you didn’t like the work you were assigned.

      Your startup is doomed for failure, because it is being led by a person with no character.

  • Some advice that I’ve received that I firmly believe in is that if you have to ask for a raise you should just quit.

    It’s something that I encountered as an employer and something that I believe in as an employee as well.
    Great read and awesome that you made the switch so quickly instead of dragging things out and getting more disgruntled in the process.

    • Hmm, in my experience that would mean quitting from most companies!

      I’ve learned the rule of “Don’t ask, don’t get.”  If you’re creating value they probably will pay more if you ask.  If they don’t value you, leave and go somewhere where you can put your skills to better use.

      • You are right.

        But if you look closer you will see that most of these companies aren’t really valuing you. 

        If your boss can’t recognize your value you should be moving somewhere else.

  • Lou

    Nice story, thanks for sharing.  I actually especially enjoyed the part about the drive from Seattle to San Fran.  I’m jealous of the view from Mt. Shasta, maybe someday I’ll get to see it.

    • Oh yeah!  Imagine a sky lit up with stars like you’ve never seen ever…

  • Pingback: When to Quit | Hiking Dave()

  • Did they give you an exit interview, and did you have any opportunity to give feedback?  

    • Yeah I got an exit interview.  I just told them it wasn’t the right fit.  There was no point being Mr. Poopy Pants.  I just wanted out of there.

  • TechLead

    Wasn’t Jeff really saying..”If you don’t like it then you should leave”.  Whoever spoke essentially called out his boss in front of the entire company. Jeff probably didn’t want someone like that around. 

    • Yes, he was saying exactly that.  I remember so clearly because it made such an impression on me.
      Jeff got a pained look on his face like “I don’t have time for this crap” before he said “You should quit.”  And he was absolutely right.  

      I realized then that Amazon didn’t owe me anything.  And I didn’t owe them anything.  If I didn’t like it I should leave.  So I did.  

      Great advice.

  • Nice article, what would you have done if they gave you a raise? Left soon after, or stuck with it for a bit. Hopefully it would have been a high price in exchange for your happiness.

    • I would have stayed if they gave me a raise. So glad they didn’t!

  • beaten down

    My last job, I had been there for 3 years, had a boss so awful I was bring treated for an anxiety disorder, & every one close to me was worried to death about me. I had 20 years in the work force. They hired a recent college grad with an accounting degree & no job experience andpaid her more than me. (Among the hundred things I did at the whim of psycho boss, one was payroll.) I was demoralized, I was physically ill, I was mentally ill & I wouldn’t leave. Not until they fired me, which they did claiming I “wasn’t working out”..after 3 years. See, I had started complaining about psycho boss. We had a dozen employees & this was a church, by the way. No one cares about who is right, what is fair, they want what is easy. You did the right thing. I needed the severance package & insurance so I lived through it.

    • Wow, that’s a tough story.  

      Yes, what is “right” or “fair” is utterly irrelevant.  Those are different in the eye of each beholder anyway.  No point in focusing on them.

      What matters is results, and results come from action.  The only person you can control is you.  A question I like to ask myself is “What action can I take to get the results I want?”

      Complaining about a boss is almost always pointless and counterproductive.  You would have been better off taking control of your situation and leaving.

    • Luis Zunzunegui

      Similar situation here… some weeks after joining the company (a big comercial bank) the people that had hired me left to another part of the business.  My new boss decided to put someone more of his liking above me so I passed from brand manager to excel monkey in a matter of weeks. They tried to hide it under a salary rise but it didn’t work. My new bosses and I clashed constantly. I decided to tough it out in order to get the severence package and start my own company. Those have been the toughest 6 months of my life and I regret my decision deeply. I should have quit. The psicological harm was not worth the amount that I got (although at the time it seemed like a lot of money).

      Now that I have left the corporate life for good I am as happy as I’ve ever been, in fact I’ve learned so much in the process that I started my own blog (www.luiszunzunegui.com) to let everyone know how it feels to leave the coporate life for entrepeneurship.

      Looking at it with perspective I did what I did because having a corporate job felt safe and I decided that with the money it would be less scary. Now I know that I was wrong. Having the money doesn’t make it any less scary and the psicological harm is not worth it. My advice for these situations: Be brave, don’t be analytical and follow your heart.

      • I checked out your blog.  You need to write more!  You have a lot of good stuff to share.

        We’re going through the same journey.  Feels great to leave corporate life, doesn’t it?

  • Pingback: Amazon Boss Taught Me When To Quit | Lifehacker Australia()

  • Pingback: Torrent News » Jeff Bezos Taught Me When to Quit [Jobs]()

  • Thanks for this great article. I’m about 90 days into a new job after having been unemployed for a really long time and I quickly learned after a few weeks that it wasn’t going to work out as well as I hoped. I was going to gut it out for a full year, but now I’m feeling like I should just move on.

    • Only you can make that decision.  There are a lot of positives to staying — experience, more stable CV and besides things might change for the better.  Weigh your options carefully before moving forward.

      In my case it was a question of doubling down a bet or cutting my losses immediately.  If I stayed longer then left I’d have to explain that to future employers.  If I left quickly it would be as if it never happened CV-wise.  The job was fundamentally the wrong fit and I really didn’t enjoy the work which is no way to excel.  I also feared being put in the “finance guy” bucket which would make it harder to switch to a product or marketing team later.  

      You could leave now, but bear in mind you’ll have to have a good explanation for future employers because they will view that as a risk factor.  If it’s a good story you’ll be fine, but if you leave more than one job quickly it will really harm your prospects.

      • vpc

        Thanks for your response, Chris. I completely understand what you’re saying. It’s not so much that I want to leave, but I see it as a matter of opportunity costs. How does it affect my mental and physical health if I stay? How does it affect my long/short term prospects of finding a job if I leave? Leaving is not my preference, but I certainly want to keep my eyes and ears open to anything that might come along between now and my one year anniversary.

        My experience and preference is more in the account and brand management side of things, but I am currently out of my comfort zone working in project management. And I’m not really enjoying it at all. I’m always optimistic, but I just don’t see the light at the end of this tunnel. Things just seem to get a little worse every single day.

        The explanation is the tricky part. I am more straightforward and candid, but almost always professional, when it comes to sharing my opinions. I’ll need to spend some time figuring this one out if I ultimately decide to cut my losses and look for new opportunities.

        • My sense is most employers will give you a pass if you’re straight and say you made a mistake.  It wasn’t a fit for reasons A, B and C.  You realized that and made a tough but necessary call.  The job you’re now applying for is a good fit because of X, Y and Z.

          Good luck!

  • That was a good story Chris.

    The one that still stings a little is walking away from an employer that offered me a big raise (relative to my embarrassingly poor salary) to stay, and I responded with, “I really appreciate the offer and I’ll probably lose sleep over this, but I have to see where this other opportunity takes me.”
    When the economy took a dive that other opportunity didn’t quite pan out as expected, and I’d left a whole lot of money on the table at the previous place.  In fact, years later I’m still not at that number.  I just remind myself that nearly everyone that accepts a retention offer from a place that treated them poorly ends up leaving inside a year, regardless of the pay.

    So I might be happier than I would have been, but still, you can’t help but wonder…

    • Thanks David. 

      Do you play Texas Hold ‘Em poker?  That game mirrors life in a lot of ways.  

      The only way to win big is to take risks.  Not foolish risks, but calculated ones and sometimes big calculated ones.  A player who never risks never wins.

      Sometimes those big bets don’t work out.  You get beat on the river and you lose a bundle.  But if you clam up and stop risking you may as well stop playing.

      I think life is the same way.  Make your bet as best you can and don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.  It’s better always to be motivated by opportunity than motivated by fear.  

      • I’m sure you’re right, though I imagine the last few years have made folks pretty risk-averse.  I know it’s done that to me.  And right on the heels of that “bad beat”.

        I *have* noticed that any of my small ventures, concocted to operate with near-zero risk, never seem to work.  I guess having to sweat a bit helps force the personal investment necessary to make certain projects succeed.  

  • eastcoast

    I wonder about a company that says quit! Talent goes out the door and you are stuck with managers who don’t have a clue. When you are that removed from your company, eventually you start to lose your customers because the talent is gone.

  • I ag

  • Chris,

    I came across your post through StartupDigest.  

    I had an almost identical experience as you with my first job out of business school at the bottom of the finance totem pole at Amazon.  

    I lasted about 6 months but decided to leave and start a company after experiencing almost identical frustrations as you.  I was less concerned about the money, and more concerned about the lack of management and perceived opportunity and adventure, but I know how you felt.

    I wonder how many more people had a similar experience?  I wonder how many stuck around?  

    The experience I had was about 8 years after you, so it seems not much has changed at Amazon on the finance side.  I don’t know what would have come if I stayed at Amazon, although I probably wouldn’t be running my own business right now, which I love doing.


    • Good on ya, Salar.

      All we can do is control our own actions, not those of others.  If you don’t like the deal you’re getting, take action and find — or create — another.  At the end of the day all parties are better off.

      Sounds like things worked out great for you!

  • ron5323

    Good story!  I hate Amazon and admire your courage

  • Pingback: Issue 8 – Should you quit? Cancel Facebook? And what does USPP stand for? — TLN()

  • Thank you for sharing your story. You have given me the courage I need to follow my heart and trust in the universe!

    • Thanks for commenting Julie! It’s all about being motivated by opportunity instead of being motivated by fear. Things never seem to work out when I make choices out of fear. It’s when I chase what I really want that things happen.

  • Good read, Chris! Many-a-time you need to take the plunge expecting things to work out. But you also need to realize when to switch courses when things do not work as expected. I am in the middle of a course correction myself, let’s see where things lead! Cheers.

    • Yes, absolutely Karthik. It really boils down to having the courage “to be or not to be.” Shakespeare nailed it 400 years ago.

  • Great article… It really resonated with me, and was just the redeeming words I needed to hear right now! I was putting up with a bad situation for 3 years… so many promises…. but all I got was taken advantage of. But I really needed my job and I didn’t want to give up as I was determined to help the company succeed, in spite of so many challenges.
    Three weeks ago I lost my job because I brought up my concerns to my boss. My goals was to try to talk it out and figure out a win win. It needed to be done because I was to the point that I was so overwhelmed and disenchanted… I was unable to focus on my work and became mentally paralyzed. When I requested a meeting to discuss a resolution, the response I got was very defensive and then I was hung up on (I worked remotely so I did not work inside the office). Five hours later, my phone and email stopped working, the access to the office systems was disconnected, and I was removed from our online systems.
    I tried several times to call my boss… and when he finally called me back… all he said was… “when can I come pick everything up?” meaning my laptop, phone, printer, etc. when I asked what was going on he simply replied, “You quit… so I need my company items back.”
    After 3 years of dedicated service in helping his company build market-share and double its customer base… this is how I was treated. He would always tell everyone how valuable I was to the company and he could never let me go. Then when he realized that I was catching on to his unethical practices… he came up with a plan to sabotage me.
    So now I’m out of a job in a tough job market… and I have kids to feed and a mortgage to pay. And to make things worse… he is trying to get my unemployment benefits denied. I am so worried because I have no money coming in at all now. and, although I have had some great job interviews… I fear I may be getting shot down because he is giving prospective employers bad reviews about me.
    I wish I would have just kept my mouth shut and looked for another job and quit before I was put in this situation. And even now… I’m still being negatively affected by this man and I don’t even work for him anymore. all I can do is hold my head high, stay positive, and believe that something better will come along.
    It’s so sad that so many are victims of these type of bosses. I have to believe that Karma is alive and well in these cases.
    Here is to following your heart and believing in the universe.

    • That sucks Julie.

      As I’ve gotten more experienced I’ve realized how important it is to sniff out good leaders and bad ones. There are a lot of takers in the world. Sounds like you had one for a boss.

      On the bright side, now you’re liberated from walking on eggshells all the time with this guy. You have the opportunity to find something that fits you better. Keep you head up and keep trying — positive change is on the way!

  • Aha

    Great post. Thanks Chris.

  • Long T

    This’s absolutely story of the day sir. Been knowing you for your business in Vietnam but till today I got the chance to see how young Chris Harvey manage the tough situation. That’s something to learn there.

  • tenke76

    Hi Chris
    We are your customer from last year. But only today, I know about your blog. Reading your story, I see myself in it. The same happened with my first job. But I quit after 3 years instead of 6 months like you. Now I move from an employee everyday to entrepreneur. My vision is applying software to agriculture. The same way, Elon Musk with transport. Peter Thiel with banking. Chris Harvey with recruiting. In my eyes, you have the same status as Alexandre Rohdes, Dr Yersin, Louis Pasteur in modern Vietnam. Keep up with the good work. Your story help me to feel: I am not alone. Thank you so much.