December 29, 2017
In the spring of 2010 Jeff Bezos addressed the Princeton graduating class with this anecdote:
"At [a young] 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 [who was smoking in the car]. 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 is harder to be kind than it is to be clever.”
I keep that last thought in mind all the time.
As the last moments of 2017 fritter away, I want to put something in perspective. The way our economy, and our world, is structured, there are huge rewards for being clever. Particularly in finance. In indexing, the discoveries we have made, the ideas we have incorporated, and the grit with which we have implemented them have worked phenomenally well.
But those rewards come as numbers, little bits that flash across screens. And numbers only go so far. They are not the stories and feelings on which life is built.
Lots of you were kind to us. In any endeavor there are rocky times. Hans and I got many emails, texts, and calls with thoughts about how to proceed, or encouraging us to push harder, or laughing at some of the crazy. And trusting us with a part of your future means a great deal.
But we also observed, talking to hundreds of you, how many ways in your own lives and careers you have done things that didn't have a determined monetary jingle waiting at the end. From teachers working late nights, to truck drivers hauling weekend loads because someone had to fill in, to entrepreneurs worrying about payroll and moms & dads worrying about teenagers, that kindness has been inspirational to us.
2018, we await you.
Be clever. Stay kind. Sail on.