Why Jeff Bezos raves about Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro

October 10, 2017 09:19
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is one of the favorite books of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. Photo: Literary Hub/Amazon

Japan-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was named this year’s winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novels have been well received by both serious writers and scholars, and also a longtime favorite of millions of readers.

Although Ishiguro moved to the UK with his family at the age of five and he has been writing exclusively in English for years, he has a deep emotional and cultural connection to Japan, and said that “a large part of my way of looking at the world, my artistic approach, is Japanese, because I was brought up by Japanese parents, speaking in Japanese”.

The 62-year-old writer has eight novels, including his first work A Pale View of Hills in 1982 and his best known novel, The Remains of the Day, in 1989.

The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an English butler who has dedicated his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington before the second World War. Stevens later regretted over lost opportunities regarding his decades of selfless service to Lord Darlington.

In fact, the book is one of the favorites of Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos. He has recommended The Remains of the Day publicly, and it’s also on “Jeff’s Reading List”, which Amazon employees are encouraged to read.

The book helps people learn something about life and regrets. “Long my favorite novel. Teaches pain of regret so well you will think you lived it. Congrats, Mr. Ishiguro, so earned!" Bezos said in a tweet congratulating Ishiguro.

Some believe The Remains of the Day has affected the corporate culture of Amazon. The novel’s theme of duty, sacrifice and unrequited love has affected the way Bezos manages the company.

Amazon is often labeled as a high-paid sweat shop, and its employees need to work up to 80 hours a week. They need to deal with emails during late nights or even on holidays. Workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.

But many internet giants like Apple, Google, Huawei or Alibaba have similar brutal working conditions. High-paid employees constantly work long hours to meet deadlines.

So that might be an overly simplified conclusion that Bezos’s company management tactics are inspired by his favorite author.

“If you read The Remains of the Day, which is one of my favorite books, you can’t help but come away and think, I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life and I learned something about life and about regret. You can’t do that in a blog post,” Bezos once said in an interview.

The most important inspiration Bezos got from the book is probably how to reduce remorse in life when pursuing career goals.

According to Brad Stone’s Bezos biography The Everything Store, The Remains of the Day inspired Bezos to develop a concept he calls “the regret-minimization framework”.

Bezos would project himself forward to several years or decades, and ask himself if he would regret having tried this. This framework has helped him make some of the biggest business decisions.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 9.

Translation by Julie Zhu with additional reporting

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist