After coming across a list of the greatest graduation speeches of all time the other month, I felt inspired and reflective. So far, I’ve written about Joyce DiDonato’s four truths and Ellen DeGeneres‘s inspiring story of success. This month, I’m writing about Princeton University’s 2010 commencement speech by Jeff Bezos.
When Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, was young, he spent his summers with his grandparents. Every few years, they would travel around the United States and Canada with their caravan club.
Bezos loved and worshiped his grandparents. He vividly remembers on of their trips; his grandfather was driving, his grandmother was in the passenger seat smoking cigarettes, and he was in the back with nothing to do but make estimates and do minor arithmetic, figuring out useless statistics.
One of the days, he told his grandmother that at two minutes per puff of her cigarettes, she had taken nine years off her life. He expected to be applauded for his cleverness and advanced arithmetic skills, but instead, his grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather pulled over the caravan and taught him a valuable life lesson that is much harder to be kind than clever.
What he talks to the class of 2010 about is that there is a difference between gifts and choices. Being clever is a gift but being kind is a choice. Gifts are easy, but choices are hard. The graduates in front of him possessed many gifts. The gift of being smart is something they all possess. How you use these gifts is what will define you.
At 30 years of age, and newly wed, he told his wife, McKenzie, that he was going to quit his job to begin a start-up that had no promise of working out. Ever since he was a kid, he wanted to be an inventor; McKenzie wanted him to follow his passion. He knew he had to give it a shot because he would never regret trying and failing but would be haunted if he decided to never try at all.
There are many questions Bezos asks, and they are incredibly reflective.
“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 an 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?”
Bezo ends his speech by noting that when you’re 80-years-old and reflecting on your life, the most meaningful story will be what choices you have made and the impact that they had. Afterall, we are what our choices make us.