Jeff Bezos has made enough mistakes and seen enough success that he’s qualified to offer advice of all kinds. Some of his most intriguing came from a Princeton University commencement speech in 2010. The speech was titled “We Are What We Choose” and distinguished between the gifts we have and the choices we make.
Said Bezos: “When you’re 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you’ve made.”
Valuable advice followed in the form of 12 questions Bezos asked his audience to reflect upon deeply to help build a great life story. Here they are, meshed with my own perspective.
1. How will you use your gifts?
We all have gifts, no exception. How can you wield yours like the superpowers they are to do good for the world?
Different gifts can surface at different times. My business/marketing gifts served me well for decades, until I wanted to use other gifts in servitude (thus becoming a speaker/author/
teacher/coach). I’ve found the most happiness in using my gifts to serve something greater than myself.
2. What choices will you make?
This is about being intentional, working on your life versus in it. Breaking toxic patterns and accepting responsibility for the outcomes. And as 70s rock icon Geddy Lee sang: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,” so living on autopilot isn’t an option. Choose to be intentional in your choices.
3. Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
“Unstuck” starts with “U.” The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spots–if you’ve put it in park, thrust it into drive.
I fell into a comfortable, corporate pattern. Things were coming easy but learning and growth wasn’t. I was shrinking. It wasn’t until I kicked my entrepreneurial dreams into overdrive that I yanked myself out of a rut.
4. Will you follow dogma or be original?
I haven’t done everything right over my career as a boss. But I know that when I gave employees the space, encouragement, and safety to bring their original thinking to the table (and managed by objective versus oversight), I saw wings unfurl.
Yours will too, if you dare to create. It doesn’t have to be something that’s absolutely unique, just uniquely you.
5. Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
Shifting to a life of servitude wasn’t easy. I had to redefine what success looks like, rethink how much wealth/income I really needed, reevaluate what living comfortably means. While the challenges that come with a life of service/adventure aren’t inconsequential, I can’t imagine it any other way at this stage of my life.
6. Will you wilt under criticism or follow your convictions?
You decide who gets to criticize you. Not all criticism is created equal–some doing the criticizing shouldn’t even get a seat at the table.
7. Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong or apologize?
The fastest route to regret is to let your role in tension/conflict linger. And I’ve never, ever regretted being the bigger person when necessary.
8. Will you guard your heart against rejection or act when you fall in love?
I know the temptation to be smarmy is high given Bezos’ recent indiscretions, but it shouldn’t taint the truth to this point.
9. Will you play it safe or be a bit swashbuckling?
You know that pit you feel in your stomach before you try something that scares/worries you? That feeling isn’t there to frighten you. It’s there to tell you that something must be worth it, otherwise you’d feel nothing.
10. When it’s tough, will you give up or be relentless?
Psychology research from the University of Pennsylvania indicates that mental toughness, or “grit,” as the researchers call it, is the single most important factor for success, even above intelligence. Being persistent pays.
11. Will you be a cynic or a builder?
Cynics lose their power when challenged. Challenge yourself to lift up rather than tear down. There are so many trolls that hide under their bridge and spew acid. Don’t be a troll–be a bridge.
12. Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
There’s no value my wife and I try to role model more for our child than kindness. Why? Because it’s the positive, environment-molding attribute from which all other positive attributes flow.
We’re the editors of our own life story. Our job is to build the most meaningful chapters we can before “The End”. So get introspective now to enjoy your looking-back perspective later.