Here is the full text [verbatim transcript] of the commencement address “We are What We Choose” delivered by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at 2010 Commencement Ceremony at Princeton University.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos delivers graduation speech at Princeton University
Shirley Tilghman – Princeton University President
It is hard to imagine life without Amazon.com. Even for someone of my advanced age. After all, where else can a few clicks of a mouse take you from the latest novel by Toni Morrison to an eighteenth century edition of the works of John Locke, having stopped in power tools and women shoes along the way? Yet the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the world’s largest e-tailer whose net sales surpassed $24.5 billion in 2009 is only 46 years old. And Amazon.com has only existed since 1995, making it even younger than the Class of 2010.
The moral of this story is that the right idea in the right hands at the right time can change the way we live our lives. The idea, in this case, was harnessing the power of the nascent Internet to create a virtual book store of limitless proportions, the hands were those of our speaker, Jeff Bezos, a self-described nerdy computer science and electrical engineering major who graduated from Princeton with highest honors in 1986. And the time was 1994 when he and his wife Mackenzi Tuttle Bezos of the Class of 1992 exchanged the security of Wall Street where they worked at D. E. Shaw & Company for the uncertain prospects of a dotcom startup.
But then as Jeff points out, failure is an essential component of the innovation and invention. If you know what’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. And Amazon.com was nothing, if not, a grand experiment. Working on improvised cables in the garage of a Seattle home and using his parents’ savings as startup capital, Jeff defied the forces that cause most young companies to fail. Partly, he admits through sheer good fortune but also because of his unwavering determination to create the world’s most customer-centric company. And as he notes in his company’s latest annual report, of the 452 goals that Amazon.com has set for itself this year, 360 of them will directly affect the customer experience, while the word revenue is used on only eight occasions.
I do not advise you to start off with 452 goals this year by the way. But this is just one of the keys to Jeff’s success. Another lies in his exceptional ability to marry commerce and technology in creative ways, in his sheer inventiveness and willingness to take the risks inherent in this process. Indeed, the history of Amazon.com is one of daringly leaps. One such leap involved creating the capacity to search inside the books sold by his company, not by designing a modest pilot project, but by committing the resources to make it possible to scour the text of more than 120,000 volumes, when this feature debuted in 2003.
Other innovations have included one-click shopping, online product reviews by customers, and of course, the Kindle reading device, which we test-drove in 3 courses this fall. Mirroring the rapid growth of Amazon itself, the number of books available through the US Kindle store topped 460,000 in 2009, just 2 years after its launch. And there is no turning back.
“Our vision is every book, every printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds,” Jeff has stated. An audacious proposition to be sure, but as Albert Einstein once observed, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
Perhaps the American Academy of Achievements summarized our speaker’s impact best when it noted: “Having already revolutionized the way the world buys books, Jeff Bezos is now transforming the way we read them as well.”
I like to think that Princeton helped to lay the groundwork for this revolution. Dreamer and doer, entrepreneur and engineer, refreshingly unassuming, even in the face of unimaginable success, Jeff has done his alma mater proud.
It is a true honor and pleasure to welcoming him back to Old Nassau today.
Jeff Bezos – Founder and CEO, Amazon.com
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially Days of Our Lives. My grandparents belonged to a caravan club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travelled together around the US and Canada. And every few summers, we’d join the caravan.
We’d hitch up the Airstream to my grandfather’s car and off we’d go. In line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. 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’s 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 ads said: “Every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life.” I think it might have been 2 minutes per puff.
At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per day, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on.
When I was satisfied that I had 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 2 minutes per puff, you’ve taken 9 years off of your life!”
I have a very vivid memory of what happened next. And it was not what I had expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and my 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 back seat, and didn’t know what to do while my grandmother was crying.
My grandfather, who’d 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.”
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift. Kindness is a choice.
Gifts are easy — they’re given, after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful. And if you do, it will probably be to the detriment of your choices.