Bezos’s ventures are by now so large and varied that it is difficult to truly comprehend the nature of his empire, much less the end point of his ambitions. What exactly does Jeff Bezos want? Or, to put it slightly differently, what does he believe? Given his power over the world, these are not small questions. Yet he largely keeps his intentions to himself; many longtime colleagues can’t recall him ever expressing a political opinion. To replay a loop of his interviews from Amazon’s quarter century of existence is to listen to him retell the same unrevealing anecdotes over and over.
In the course of these conversations, my view of Bezos began to shift. Many of my assumptions about the man melted away; admiration jostled with continued unease. And I was left with a new sense of his endgame.
Bezos loves the word relentless—it appears again and again in his closely read annual letters to shareholders—and I had always assumed that his aim was domination for its own sake. In an era that celebrates corporate gigantism, he seemed determined to be the biggest of them all. But to say that Bezos’s ultimate goal is dominion over the planet is to misunderstand him. His ambitions are not bound by the gravitational pull of the Earth.
efore bezos settled on Amazon.com, he toyed with naming his unlaunched store MakeItSo.com. He entertained using the phrase because he couldn’t contain a long-standing enthusiasm. The rejected moniker was a favored utterance of a man Bezos idolizes: the captain of the starship USS Enterprise-D, Jean-Luc Picard.
When reporters tracked down Bezos’s high-school girlfriend, she said, “The reason he’s earning so much money is to get to outer space.” This assessment hardly required a leap of imagination. As the valedictorian of Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s class of 1982, Bezos used his graduation speech to unfurl his vision for humanity. He dreamed aloud of the day when millions of his fellow earthlings would relocate to colonies in space. A local newspaper reported that his intention was “to get all people off the Earth and see it turned into a huge national park.”
Most mortals eventually jettison teenage dreams, but Bezos remains passionately committed to his, even as he has come to control more and more of the here and now. Critics have chided him for philanthropic stinginess, at least relative to his wealth, but the thing Bezos considers his primary humanitarian contribution isn’t properly charitable. It’s a profit-seeking company called Blue Origin, dedicated to fulfilling the prophecy of his high-school graduation speech. He funds that venture—which builds rockets, rovers, and the infrastructure that permits voyage beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—by selling about $1 billion of Amazon stock each year. More than his ownership of his behemoth company or of The Washington Post—and more than the $2 billion he’s pledged to nonprofits working on homelessness and education for low-income Americans—Bezos calls Blue Origin his “most important work.”