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Harder To Be Kind

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 20, 2010

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, recently gave a graduation speech at Princeton. He entitled his remarks We Are What We Choose.

Today’s world is highly competitive and most middle and upper class families work very hard to help their children prepare to compete. We make sure the school work gets done and provide lots of extra help if needed; we encourage the development of interests such as sports, music and art, often attending games and recitals and paying generously for lessons, equipment and trips. More than a few of us are thinking ahead to what might look good on that application to some top college or university. Not long ago, we received an invite to a charity benefit — supposedly organized by a 12-year-old who had supposedly founded the charity.

If all this is not precisely easy, it is at least clear. When we think about how we raise and ought to raise the Jr. Pundits, aka William, age 8, and Matthew, age 7, we struggle not with how to raise smart kids but with how to raise a child to be, what my grandparents would have called, a mensch. Jeff Bezos was fortunate to have a grandfather who could teach him and a situation that called for teaching, when he was only 10. Here is an excerpt from his Princeton speech:

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.”

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