What did Bezos' grandfather say to him?
TLDR: “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Excerpt from a 2010 graduation speech Bezos gave to Princeton’s graduating class:
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.”
I was reminded of the speech after seeing a few snarky takes on tech twitter today. Tweets about how people were idiots to ignore the coronavirus warnings. Idiots because they didn’t understand how exponential growth works. Idiots because they didn’t understand tail risk. And as Matt Gaetz went into self-quarantine today, there were naturally some smirks exchanged within media circles. Look, I get the irony inherent in all this. Some of it might be lighthearted banter.
But at such times, we would be all be hard pressed to find better advice than the one shared by Jeff Bezos’ grandfather:
“It’s harder to be kind than clever.”