Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos challenged Princeton graduates with this question: “Will you be clever or will you be kind.” The question asked is almost as interesting as the question begged.
Mr. Bezos’ credentials as the founder of Amazon.com give credibility and weight to this very typical graduation speech. Because it sounds typical, I almost missed a couple of important moments of intrigue and metaphor.
Consider first the subject of the speech: kindness versus cleverness. Bezos’ credentials certify him as a clever man in most people’s eyes. I do not mean “clever” in a derogatory manner, I do not believe him a trickster. I mean clever in the sense of him showing inventiveness, perception, and mental sharpness. The middle part of Bezos’ speech focuses on this part of his character. Bezos perceived a trend, understood the opportunity the trend presented, and invented something which allowed him to profit greatly from the trend. Good for him, that was clever of him.
Yet Bezos wants us to be more than clever, he wants us to be kind. Consider the end of his speech. He peppers his audience with alternatives: Will you give up or will you be relentless? Will you follow dogma or will you be original? Will you choose a life of ease or will you choose a life of service or adventure?
All these questions lead up to a final question: Will you be clever or will you be kind? That’s a question almost as interesting as the question begged: How will you know kindness?
I’m intrigued by how kids at Princeton were educated to determine the answer to the question begged (assuming that they were educated to determine the answer at all). I’ve been to several graduation ceremonies. The emphasis is always the same: do good. Just out of curiosity, which general education class taught on the subject of “the good”? Was it a class in the sciences? Perhaps a class in the arts or humanities? Think about every commercial you’ve seen for colleges on television; think about the first question you have in your mind once you find out about a student’s major. In your experience, do colleges teach to character or career? Are they concerned with big questions of morality or facts about material?
Jeff Bezos doesn’t give his audience much of a metric to work with; he doesn’t give them much to help them determine what kindness is or what it might look like. He does say that one shouldn’t be clever at the expense of others – perhaps a derivation of the golden rule? Why did Bezos focus so much on his own cleverness when it is kindness that he’d have us consider? Perhaps because attempting to define kindness, and declare his definition to be true, would be too risky – too “swashbuckling” a thing to do. People simply don’t make truth claims in polite company.
One final thought. Look at the video. What do you see? You see a man, in a robe, standing in the pulpit of a cathedral giving a lecture on kindness to an audience listening intently as they self-examine their lives. The man is not a pastor, a student of theology or philosophy, the man is the CEO of a technology company. The man is a student of clever things. Does anyone else see a contradiction in the message versus the image?
Consider now who our society admires most as advocates of social justice, sustainable living, and other issues deemed to be good for humanity. Do we not admire Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, the Google guys, and others like them? Upon what grounds do we give credibility to these individuals that they should fill the role once filled by pastors and philosophers?
We should consider the metaphor this video presents of the technologist as minister and ask ourselves one thing: where do we come to know kindness – where is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge?’