What's the secret to a long, happy and successful life? That seems to be a question we ask ourselves over and over.
Jeff Bezos, who announced Tuesday that he will step down from his role as Amazon CEO later this year and transition to the role of executive chair, has shared his thoughts on this very topic many times — and he might just be onto something.
"When you are 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 have made," Bezos said in his 2010 commencement speech at Princeton University.
In his speech, titled "We Are What We Choose," Bezos emphasize 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'll probably be to the detriment of your choices."
In other words, no matter how successful you become, what you'll end up caring about the most in hindsight isn't the number of zeroes in your bank account, but it's the choices you made to get where you are.
But without the benefit of hindsight, how can we tell if we're on a path that we'll be proud of when we look back on our lives 10, 20 or 30 years from now?
In his talk, Bezos recounted the period of time in which he first came up with the idea to start an online bookstore business (which would later become what the entire world now knows as Amazon).
At the time, he knew that moving forward with the idea would be a very risky move.
Bezos even asked his boss, who he said was "brilliant" and "much admired," for advice. He was told that although it "sounded like a very good idea, it would be an even better idea" if Bezos didn't already have a good job.
"It really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn't think I'd regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all," Bezos said. "After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I'm proud of that choice."
The truth in life is that we'll all make choices we end up regretting. It's called failure, and failure can be a good thing because it teaches us how to be better. But as we grow older, our goal should be to minimize the number of failures that lead to regret.
"In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story," he said towards the end of his speech.
To build a great story, Bezos offered 12 questions and urged everyone to think deeply about them:
- How will you use your gifts?
- What choices will you make?
- Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
- Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
- Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
- Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
- Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologize?
- Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
- Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
- When it's tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
- Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
- Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
While these questions don't provide a foolproof recipe for happiness, they can guide us in making choices that will ultimately help us live a life we're proud of.
Not all of us will end up reaching the same height of success as Bezos, a self-made billionaire and the richest person in the world. But there's no reason we can't — or shouldn't — challenge ourselves to build a story worth telling.
*This article has been updated to reflect that Jeff Bezos will step down from his role as Amazon CEO in late 2021 and transition to the role of executive chair.
Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert and proud Baltimore native. Currently, he is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal.
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