Bezos '86 emphasizes the power of choice to graduates

The founder and chief executive officer of the Internet retailer made an impassioned plea to Princeton’s graduating seniors on May 30 to pay close attention to the choices they make in life, as they will dictate not only success, but happiness.

“When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating only for yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be the most compact and meaningful will be a series of choices you have made,” said Jeff Bezos, who graduated from Princeton in 1986 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, speaking at the Baccalaureate ceremony. “In the end, we are our choices.”

Bezos spoke slowly and emphatically, almost as if he were engaging in a heart-to-heart with each graduate. He related an emotional incident from his childhood that drove home for him the lesson about the power inherent in making right—and wrong—decisions.

On a long road trip with his beloved grandparents, a 10-year-old Bezos decided to impress his grandmother with his talents for calculations, informing her that her intensive cigarette smoking would take nine years off her life. When instead of praising his mathematical prowess, she wept, his grandfather took him aside and gave him one of the great lessons of his life.

“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 is a gift, Bezos told the graduates, and kindness is a choice. “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,” he said.

Bezos acknowledged the group’s giftedness and envisaged that those talents would yield many marvels. “We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it,” Bezos predicted. “Atom by atom, we’ll assemble small machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs.”

The coming opportunities, he said, will require the world’s future innovators to employ their gifts and make important choices. “How will you use these gifts?” he said. “And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?” –KM