What you choose also chooses you

“As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially Days of Our Lives.

My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the United States and Canada. And every few summers we’d join the caravan. We’d hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather’s car, and off we’d go in a line with three hundred other Airstream adventurers.

I loved and worshipped my grandparents, and I looked forward to these trips. On one, when I was about ten 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 or figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending.

I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically, the ad said that every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off 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, 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 anticipated. 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 and 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 maybe 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 what the consequences might be. 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.”

“Cleverness is a gift; kindness is a choice.”

What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift; 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.

This is a group with many gifts. I’m sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans-plodding as we are-will astonish ourselves. We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we’ll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs.

As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.

How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?

I got the idea to start Amazon sixteen years ago. I came across the fact that web usage was growing at 2,300 per cent per year. I’d never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles- something that simply couldn’t exist in the physical world was very exciting to me.

I had just turned thirty years old, and I’d been married for a year. I told my wife, MacKenzie, that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work since most start-ups don’t, and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie (also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row) told me I should go for it. As a young boy, I’d been a garage inventor.

I’d invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tyres, a solar cooker that didn’t work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, and baking pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I’d always wanted to be an inventor, and she wanted me to follow my passion.

I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss who I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet.

He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said,

“That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.” That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for forty-eight hours before making a final decision.

Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe-path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.

Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life – the life you author from scratch on your own begins.

  • How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
  • Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
  • Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
  • Will you choose a life of ease or a life of service and adventure?
  • Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
  • Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?
  • Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
  • Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling
  • When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
  • Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
  • Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

I will hazard a prediction. When you are eighty years old and, in a quiet moment of reflection, narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made.

We are what we choose

“We Are What We Choose” - Jeff Bezos life lessons for immigrant entrepreneurs

In the end, we are our choices.

Build yourself a great story. Thank you, and good luck!”

By Jeff Bozos

Amazon Founder

Address to the Princeton graduating class of 2010

Read more

Jeff Bozos Invent & Wander

Invent And Wander

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