Jeff Bezos’s mother was a teenager when he was born and her marriage to his father lasted only about a year. When Jeff was four she married a Cuban immigrant, Miguel Bezos, who worked his way through the University of Albuquerque and eventually became an engineer for Exxon in Houston, Texas.
An important part of Jeff Bezos’s childhood was time spent with his maternal grandparents, who traced their roots to Texas settlers who over the generations acquired a 25,000-acre ranch. When Bezos’s maternal grandfather retired from his job as a regional director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, he moved to the ranch, where young Bezos spent many summers.
Bezos, valedictorian of his high school, graduated from Princeton University in 1986 with two degrees — in electrical engineering and computer science. Bezos then worked on Wall Street in the computer science field. Bezos founded Amazon in 1994 after realizing that the rapid growth of the Internet was accompanied by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling holding that mail order catalogs were not required to collect sales taxes in states where they lack a physical presence.
In 2010 he was invited by the graduating class at Princeton to deliver the baccalaureate address at graduation. Below is an excerpt:
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. . . 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 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 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. 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.”