What Jeff Bezos Really Told Princeton Grads About Kindness

Bezos, who is said to have engineered a brutal workplace, told students to be nice to each other

Inside Amazon's Working Environment and Culture

On Saturday, the New York Times published a detailed profile of Amazon's white-collar work culture that made the company seem like a very intense place to be employed. The article described Amazon’s offices as a “thrilling, bruising” environment in which people are encouraged to belittle their colleagues, and where leaving work to recover from cancer earns you a demerit. The story is heavy with frightening details, but one of the strangest anecdotes in it is told by founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos to a group of Princeton students during their 2010 graduation.

The Times summarizes the Bezos tale quickly. He “wanted his grandmother to stop smoking,” the article notes, and when Bezos was 10 years old, he calculated how much time she was shaving off of her life with each puff. When he described his math to his grandmother, she started crying. The Times ends the story there, drawing a broad conclusion from 10-year-old Bezos’s behavior: “Decades later, he created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics.”

But the full transcript of the Princeton speech shows that Bezos was using the story to illustrate almost the opposite lesson. Riding in a car with his grandparents after he made the offending comment ("At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!") he says he initially expected to be praised for his math—something along the lines of: "'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.'"

But when Bezos's grandmother “burst into tears,” his grandfather stopped the car on the shoulder of the highway and delivered a line that stayed with Bezos 46 years later. "'Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever,'" his grandfather said.

Bezos went on to say that students should not be “seduced” by their gift of intelligence, a winning lottery ticket that’s easy to rely on. “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice,” he said.

Bezos may have carried his love of measurement into his business, and empathy is a principle largely missing from Amazon's punishing culture, as my colleague Brad Stone has written. But in this narrative, at least, Bezos was describing the danger in overemphasizing metrics in human relationships.

The speech is hardly an unthinking endorsement of sweetness and generosity as pillars of a successful life. Bezos drew contrasts between choosing “a life of ease” and “a life of service,” and he asked students to consider whether they would “wilt under criticism” or “follow [their] convictions.”

Still, Bezos's overarching theme was the importance of people choosing to be nice to one another, instead of using intellect as a blunt weapon. That appeal does not jibe with the image of his workplace, as portrayed by the Times, as one in which people are pushed to undercut each other ruthlessly in a Darwinian pursuit of the best ideas.