Excerpted from “We Are What We Choose” by Jeff Bezos, delivered to the Princeton Class of 2010 at graduation
Read time: less than a min.
On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.
At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage—figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d heard an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically, the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per day, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”
I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car, came around, opened my door, and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or perhaps he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge the consequences. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, and kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy—they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.
How will you use these gifts?
Will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?
Thank you for sharing some of your precious time with me each week. Leave a comment if you liked it.
With gratitude, until next week.