It’s always Day 1

The legendary founder and Chief Executive Officer of Amazon.com published a now-famous letter to the company’s shareholders in 1997. In the letter, he alluded to a management philosophy that has become known simply as “Day 1.” In a follow up letter, published as part of Amazon’s 2016 annual report, he doubled down on this approach, explaining that “Day 2” was stasis, followed by irrelevance, decline, and death. Although the jargon associated with this business strategy is somewhat hyperbolic—a company of the size, shape, and scale of Amazon does not operate in the same fashion as a skeleton-crewed start-up—the fundamental tenets speak to the values and shared vision of the organization.

Amazon’s Day 1 philosophy has four main pillars. The first speaks to what the company terms customer obsession, a single-minded focus on serving customers ahead of all other stakeholders. As such, the second pillar calls for the rejection of process for process sake. Large organizations require multiple, often complex, processes executed simultaneously to carry out their business. However, if the focus of the organization shifts from outcomes in furtherance of customer service to perfect performance of the processes, the processes become the center of the business, rather than the customers. The philosophy encourages effective and efficient operating processes that serve customers, not the other way around. The third element of the approach requires the organization to remain situationally aware, cognizant of external factors, trends, and influences. A lack of attention to changing paradigms and the rise of new technologies and perspectives leaves businesses vulnerable to irrelevance and obsolescence. Lastly, the philosophy puts tremendous emphasis on making sound decisions quickly. It is not enough, the model argues, for organizations to simply make good choices. In order to not be left behind, they must make these big choices in a considered, evidence-informed manner with speed. There is no room for analysis paralysis in this framework.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amazon’s management philosophy in the context of mental health, because I think there are several dimensions that speak to depression recovery and wellness. As I wrote above, a critical aspect of this philosophy is that it recognizes and assumes that a complex system—itself made up of numerous interdependent and emerging complex adaptive systems—does not behave like a brand new business with minimal personnel and unreliable cash flow. However, the large, complicated organization can benefit from adopting a nimble, adaptive, creative, and innovative worldview. I think of it as an attempt to harness the entrepreneurial (euphemism for pillaging) and adventurous spirit of the Vikings and apply it to the USS Gerald R. Ford.

In the context of mental health, I see the first attribute of the philosophy as advocating relentless focus on personal mental wellbeing. As Amazon’s leader recognizes, the company is nothing without its customers. The same is true about us, as individuals, in terms of our minds. If we are mentally unwell, we cannot show up as our best selves for those who depend on us. As I wrote in a previous post, the FAA is right, “Ensure your mask is in place before assisting others.” Often, those of us with particularly high emotional intelligence tend to focus our energy and attention on others to our own detriment. However, we are no good to anyone if we fall apart. Relentless focus on our own mental health means that we will be able to be our best when it is most important.

The point about eschewing proxies, opting to encourage processes that serve us rather than us serving processes, readily applies to mental health as well. If we fall into a rut with our mental health and do not take stock of what we are doing, we will not attain or maintain wellness. I see this in my own experience. As my depression worsened, rather than hit the pause button and reevaluate my situation, I just kept going through the motions, increasing my medication without ever questioning my environment, the quality of my care, or any of the other factors contributing to my state of being. This aspect dovetails with the philosophy’s tenet of awareness of external factors. There are so many things in our lives that affect our mental health. Our present reality of quarantine and social distancing is a prime example. Recognizing how the things happening around us inform our mental health is critical.

When Jerk Brain takes over, it can be hard to make good decisions. Having mechanisms in place that can help us to quickly realize and act on threats to our mental wellbeing is important. In my own case, I know that I ultimately made the right decision to step back, focus on getting well, and find the right path forward, but it took a lot of time to make that choice during which I was honestly in danger. The speed at which we can make decisions to take care of our mental health matters because the resulting threats to our physical wellbeing are real.

I’m grateful that after several months of work, supported by my doctors, family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers on the Internet, I am getting well. Equally, I’m glad that it isn’t Day 1 of my recovery. At the same time, I embrace the Day 1 philosophy. Respecting the primacy of my mental health, paying attention to what is serving me (internally and externally), and acting to care for myself as rapidly as I can, means that I’ll be around and well for many more days to come.

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