We are What We Choose
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 U.S. 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 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. 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 been hearing 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 days, 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 and came around and 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.”
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. I’m confident that’s the case because admission is competitive and if there weren’t some signs that you’re clever, the dean of admission wouldn’t have let you in.
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. This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we’ve synthesized life. In the coming years, we’ll not only synthesize it, but we’ll engineer it to specifications. I believe you’ll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton – all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. 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 16 years ago. I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent 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 30 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 startups 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 tires, a solar cooker that didn’t work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, 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 that 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 48 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 80 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. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!
孩提时代，我总是在德州祖父母的农场中度过夏天。我帮忙修理风车，为牛接种疫苗，也做其他杂活。每天下午，我们也看肥皂剧，特别是《光辉岁月》。祖父母参加了一个房车俱乐部，一群人驾驶 Airstream 房车，结伴游历美国和加拿大。每隔几个夏天，我们会加入一次旅程。把房车挂在祖父的小汽车后面，融入 300 余名 Airstream 探险者的浩荡队伍中，就这样出发。我爱祖父母，心怀敬仰，很期盼这些旅程。在我大约 10 岁时，有一次很特殊的旅程。那次我胡乱坐在后座上，祖父开着车，祖母坐在他旁边。整个旅程祖母都吸着烟，我讨厌烟味。
今天我想对你们说的是，天赋和选择的不同。聪明是一种天赋，而善良是一种选择。天赋得来容易 —— 毕竟与生俱来。而选择颇为不易。一不小心，你可能会被天赋所诱惑，而这可能会损害到你的选择。 在座各位都拥有众多天赋。我确信你们的天赋之一就是拥有精明能干的头脑。之所以如此确信，是因为入学竞争如此激烈，如果你们不聪明，便不会有资格进入这所学校。
你们将在一片充满奇迹的世界上前行，聪明才智必能派上用场。我们人类，尽管跬步前行，却终将令自己大吃一惊。我们能够想方设法制造清洁能源等等，也能够一个原子一个原子地组装微型机械，使之穿过细胞壁，去修复细胞。这个月，有一个非常激动人心却又不足为奇的消息 —— 人类终于合成了生命。在未来几年，我们不仅会合成生命，还能将之工程规范化。我相信你们甚至会看到人类大脑被彻底理解。儒勒·凡尔纳、马克·吐温、伽利略、牛顿 —— 所有那些充满好奇之心的人都希望能够活在现在。作为文明人，我们拥有如此多的天赋，就像是坐在我面前的你们，每一个生命个体都拥有众多独特的天赋。如何运用这些天赋？为自己的天赋感到骄傲，还是会为自己的选择感到骄傲？
16 年前，我萌生了创办亚马逊的想法。当年，互联网使用量以每年 2300% 的速度增长，我从未看到或听说过任何东西增长如此快速。有个想法令我异常兴奋 —— 创建涵盖几百万种书籍的网上书店，这东西在物理世界根本无法存在。那时我刚满 30 岁，结婚才一年。我告诉妻子 MacKenzie 想辞去工作，然后去做这件疯狂的事，很可能会失败，因为大部分创业公司都如此，而且我不确定之后会发生什么。MacKenzie （也是普林斯顿毕业生，就坐在下面第二排）告诉我，我应该放手一搏。少年时期，我是一名车库发明家。我曾用水泥填充的轮胎制作自动关门器，用雨伞和锡箔制作太阳能炒锅（虽然不太好用），我还用煎锅做了一个警报器来吓唬邻居。我一直想做一个发明家，MacKenzie 支持我追随内心的热情。
我当时在纽约一家金融公司工作，同事是一群非常聪明的人，老板也很有智慧，我很敬佩他。我告诉老板我想开办一家公司，在网上卖书。老板带我在中央公园漫步良久，认真听我讲完，最后说：「听起来真是一个很好的主意。然而，对那些目前没有谋到一份好工作的人来说，这个主意会更好。」这一逻辑对我而言颇有道理，老板说服我做出最终决定之前再考虑 48 小时。那样想来，这个决定确实很艰难，但是最终，我决定拼一次。我认为自己不会为尝试过后的失败而遗憾，倒是有所决定但完全不付诸行动会一直煎熬着我。深思熟虑后，我选择了那条不安全的道路，去追随内心的热情。我为自己的决定感到骄傲。
我要做一个预测：在大家 80 岁追忆往昔的时刻，一个人静静对内心诉说人生故事时，其中最为充实、最有意义的那段故事，会是大家做出的一系列选择。最后，是选择塑造了我们，为自己塑造一个伟大的故事吧。