Entrepreneurs

What Jeff Bezos learned about how to be successful working on his grandfather’s ranch as a kid

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, is developing the New Glenn rocket to compete with SpaceX.
Photo courtesy Blue Origin
Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, is developing the New Glenn rocket to compete with SpaceX.

Worth almost $133 billion, Jeff Bezos is currently the richest person in the world, according to Forbes.

As the boss of both the e-commerce behemoth Amazon and the aerospace company Blue Origin, Bezos is a tech titan whose businesses will very likely shape the future.

Despite relying on technology to build his fortune online, Bezos says he learned a key lesson about success at an early age in a much more down-to-earth setting: working with his grandfather on his grandparents' South Texas ranch.

What did it teach him? "Being resourceful. If there's a problem, there's a solution," says Bezos, in an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, published by Business Insider at the end of April.

Bezos says his grandfather was "full of wisdom" and resourceful enough to do much of the work on the ranch by himself.

"He was super important for me," Bezos says of his grandfather.

"One of the things that's so interesting about that lifestyle and about my grandfather is he did everything himself. You know, he didn't call a vet if one of the animals was sick; he figured out what to do himself," says Bezos.

"And of course as you get into the business world and anything you do on a team, you very quickly realize that it's not just about your own resourcefulness and that it's about team resourcefulness," he says.

Bezos, 54, was born in 1964 when his mom was 17.

"I can assure you that being a pregnant teenager in high school was not cool in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at that time," says Bezos. "And so it was very difficult for her."

To help out his young parents, Bezos' grandparents took care of Bezos in South Texas every summer. As a kid, Bezos would help his grandfather out on their ranch.

"I was so young, and it was useful. I was a handful, I'm sure. Anyway, he created the illusion for me when I was 4 years old that I was helping him on the ranch. Which, of course, cannot have been true. But I believed it. And by the time I was 16, of course, I was actually helping on the ranch. I could fix prolapsed cattle; we did all our own veterinary work. Some of the cattle even survived," says Bezos. "And we fixed windmills, and laid water pipelines, and built fences, and barns, and fixed the bulldozer."

In addition to learning the importance of resourcefulness from his grandfather, Bezos also learned to appreciate the grace of kindness.

One summer, Bezos heard an anti-smoking campaign on the radio advertising that every puff on a cigarette would take a certain amount of time off your life. His grandmother was a chain smoker. The young Bezos, always interested in numbers, calculated how much time she had lost.

"In my 10-year-old mind, I had been extremely clever to do this, and so when I was finished with my arithmetic, I proudly announced to her how many years she had taken off of her life. And I got a reaction I did not expect, with her bursting into tears," says Bezos.

His grandfather stopped the car and took Bezos out of it.

"And I had no idea what was about to happen, because he had never said a cross word to me. I thought, he might actually be angry with me. But he wasn't. He took me out so that we had some privacy from her and he said these incredible words," says Bezos.

"He said, 'You're going to figure out one day that it's harder to be kind than clever.'"

This same story is at the heart of the commencement speech Bezos gave at Princeton in 2010.

"Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they're given after all. Choices can be hard," Bezos says in his Princeton speech. "You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices."

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