Gifts and Choices

Recently, I came across (via jason kottke) a brilliant commencement speech given at Princeton by Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon. The main focus of Bezos’ speech was the difference between gifts and choices. Here’s an excerpt:

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’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.

He goes on, near the end, to illustrate the idea a bit more directly:

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?

When I was in college, I took a course on the theory of programming languages – fairly arcane computer science stuff. For some reason, I just got the material. It just really, really clicked in my mind.

At the end of the semester on the day of the final, there were two people (myself and one other student) in the class who had cinched an A regardless of our performance on the final, which was obviously a relief. I vaguely knew the other student, so after the final was over, I caught up with him just to somewhat debrief on the class with someone else who really got it.

What I came to find out is that the other student with an A had put an absurd amount of work into the class. He had studied and studied. He had stayed up late working on every project. He told me, quite sincerely, that he had invested more time in that class alone than he had in all of his other classes combined that semester.

My ability to get an A in that class was a gift. His ability to get an A in that class was a choice.

Every single person out there has gifts. Some of us are very gifted with the ability to make friends easily. Other people have an innate understanding of a particular topic. My mother and my grandmother and my uncle all share a gift for sketching, a gift I simply do not have. They could (and still can, in my mother’s case) sit down with a pencil and a sheet of paper and make an amazing sketch of almost anything you can name. My mother virtually never does this, but on the few times I’ve seen her do it, I’ve been blown away at the quality of what she can produce.

Every single person out there has a life full of choices. You’re choosing what to do with every moment of your life, whether it’s work or practicing the piano or watching The Real Housewives of Duluth, MN.

Quite often, a series of choices can make up for the lack of a gift possessed by another. The story above about the student in my computer science class is a perfect example of this. I find it’s true in my own life, too.

I have always had a very difficult time being social with people I don’t know very well. It is only through a conscious choice to continually work on my social skills that I have been able to engage successfully with groups of new people and build quite a few great positive relationships in my community. By no means am I a social master, but for a very introverted guy like myself, the ability to walk into a community event, greet and be greeted by several people, and usually have one long conversation or two before I ever reach my seat is a sign that a series of conscious choices can make up for a missing gift.

However, the real home runs occur when a person knows their gifts and makes choices to accentuate that gift.

All you have to do is look at the truth of how the top people in any field have reached that point. Yes, they’re resting on some natural gifts, but those gifts are virtually always cultivated by countless hours of practice and other hard choices. Kobe Bryant didn’t wake up one morning being the best basketball player in the world. He has natural gifts, no doubt, but he constantly makes very difficult choices in terms of his practice regimen, his diet, and other areas of his life. The result? Five rings, a pile of awards, a ticket to the Hall of Fame, and more money than he can count.

In other words, people pay money to see the results of gifts matched with choices. The real message here is that gifts are certainly a help, but it is choices that really take you places.

That’s why I’m a firm believer that people should follow their passions. A passion means that you’ll constantly be making those hard choices that build something exceptional. Like that student in my class who stayed up all night working on theory of programming language projects, the results of chasing a passion are usually very strong.

Combine them with a few gifts and you have something amazing. Something people will pay money for.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. What choices will you make today to build that amazing future? Will you choose to spend less money? Will you choose to stay up all night getting that project you’re working on just perfect? Will you go home tonight, pull that canvas out of the closet, and put some paint on it?

The choice is yours.

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  1. Floyd says:

    Trent, this is a great post and I really enjoy your website. However, could you pick an example of gift+choices who isn’t a rapist?

  2. JW says:

    Wow! This is an incredible concept. Very clear. Very true. This is something that I have tried many times to articulate, but have never been able to do so this well. Thanks, Trent for this insightful post.

  3. Eric says:

    Great post. Reminds me of a great quote that I read in an article about basketball phenom Kevin Durant:
    “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

  4. Sam says:

    What’s “The Real Housewives of Duluth, MN”? I’m from around Duluth and haven’t heard of it, but then again I don’t have TV. Is it a real thing? I can’t imagine that being good entertainment.

    “On the next episode of The Real Housewives of Duluth: Gunilla gets her car stuck in a pot hole.”

  5. I know how the “other student” feels right now, because I am that student. I am taking a summer Chemistry course and every single day that I walk in I feel like I am being assaulted with information that is so far over my head that I cannot POSSIBLY begin to understand what is going on. By the end of the week, after a lot of reading and studying, I am beginning to figure things out. I have to work very hard because none of it comes naturally to me.

    Yesterday we took a test on molecular kinetics and even on Sunday night, I still felt unsure of my grasp on the concepts. When I got my test back today, I had earned an A. It wasn’t because I am gifted with the knowledge of Chemistry, it was because I worked my butt off all weekend and took extra time with my professor to work out concepts and problems.

    It is possible to be successful in areas of life where we are weak but only if we are willing to do the hard work first.

    Now, only 3 more tests to go!!!! :)

  6. Jackie says:

    I read that speech recently via the same source, and thought it was just so wonderful, especially that last sequence of questions. I am a high school teacher, and would love to have them printed on a poster for my students to see–it’s the kind of thing you wish you had known earlier, but it needs to sink it on its own to really have that impact.

    I’m spending the summer working hard almost every day on ways to make me a better teacher, even though I just had a very successful year, so this concept is definitely how I’m living my life these days, and I’m the richer for it.

  7. Wow, Trent. Cheers for this one. Totally inspiring and hit a little close to home for comfort for me (which means you were right on).

    Thanks.

  8. CB says:

    Awesome.

  9. Clare says:

    What a thought-provoking post.

  10. Clare says:

    What a thought-provoking post. Thank you.

  11. Chris says:

    Love this post! However, I could have done without the Kobe Bryant example. Some of his “choices” have been far from a good example for anyone. I guess you could have used Tiger Woods instead ;) It would have been nice to have used a person of better character to reference. Still a great post though.

  12. venkat says:

    Great Article Trent. One of these days, I would like to tell you my story not to brag what I did, where I came from, where I am today, to me Anything and Everything is Possible. I speak 7 Languages fluently, just to give you an Idea. Sure there are a lot of people who can speak 7 Languages, but how many have actually won a Full scholarship to go to a country to learn and earn an advanced Certificate in the Language at the Age of 18 and half.

  13. elan says:

    Dear Trent,

    I have been reading you steadily for months now – You always leave me encouraged and with a sense of direction. Many times I’ve wanted to chirp in to say – this time I finally will! – Trent – this is a truly inspired posting. Thank you very much. I feel very fortunate I’ve found you!

    elan

    PS – Way to Got venkat!! High Five!

  14. mary m says:

    very nice post Trent. Good job.

  15. elan says:

    Ooops! – I meant to type: “Way to Go” Venkat !
    ..which might not translate very easily so I’d like to correct it to read: Well Done!
    :)

  16. Sarah says:

    I really like the gifts/choices discussion. So many people who are averagely successful like to credit themselves for what was largely gifts of intelligence/talent in one area or another. Choices are so much harder! It makes a lot of sense to make choices that best utilize your gifts.

    I didn’t really get how the “passions” fit in to the concept though — I’d imagine in the long run you’d be a more successful programmer with your natural talent (and seemingly lack of passion?) than the kid who poured hours into it with passion but didn’t have the natural talent. Not happier, just more successful in that regard.

    Is it is totally possible (even common in my experience) to have no “gift” and still be passionate about something. In that case you surely could make choices that overcome your lack of “gift” — but doesn’t that contradict the first idea?

  17. Brandon says:

    Thanks for writing this Trent, what an incredible post! If you’ve never taken it before, I highly recommend the strength finders test. This test tells you what your natural gifts and abilities are.

    Make hard choices and change the world for the better!

  18. Gregg says:

    Nice mention of Duluth. I live here, it’s a great town. Great post as well.

  19. Peter says:

    Insightful.

  20. Doug Warshauer says:

    @ Sarah,

    I think your interpretation is right – that the combination of passion with a gift is the formula for extraordinary achievement. Without passion for an activity, someone is not likely to make the necessary choices to devote the time and energy to achieving excellence.

    There have been two outstanding books written on this subject recently: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent Is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin. Both discuss academic research that has seemed to demonstrate that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in a given field to achieve world-class proficiency, regardless of the gifts someone was endowed with.

  21. Systemizer says:

    “Quite often, a series of choices can make up for the lack of a gift possessed by another.”

    Sounds wordy.

    Dja get an A in English?

  22. Nicole says:

    meh

    So much of what we consider “gifts” is just luck. I see this a lot with math. If they had a good 4th grade teacher who taught fractions, math just “comes easily.” If their elementary math was calculator based and their teachers were math phobics, then learning any new math took a lot of effort. Sure, some people are naturally good or naturally bad at some things, but short of learning disabilities, good teaching combined with time and investment can make anything just come easy. (And a good proof-based Geometry class can train the mind to make someone a natural programmer a few years down the line.)

    Things are not so set in stone. We are the product of our environments in addition to our ambition and our natural talents.

    And don’t use as a counter example that kid #1 is naturally good at academics but kid #2 is naturally good at sports. That happens because kid #2 is trying to differentiate him or herself from kid #1.

  23. beanz says:

    Trent,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and just had to comment about this particular topic as it is something I feel quite strongly about. My purely anecdotal evidence suggests that no amount of passion and hard work can possibly overcome a lack of talent, or gift as you call it, in a particular endeavor. How’s that for a downer? I have been “gifted” with an almost comical propensity for being average at just about anything I try. I’ve been passionate about several different things in my life and in each instance I’ve been so outclassed and overpowered by talented individuals in the respective activities that I eventually realized that no amount of hard work would overcome the gaping gap in ability between me and the others.

    This is not to say that certain pursuits should be abandoned because one is not good at them. One of my favorite quotes comes from G.K. Chesterton and reads, “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” As much as I enjoy the aphorism, however, I can never fully overcome the feelings of inadequacy that accompany the upteenth not-quite-so-successful attempt at fill_in_the_blank. A telent is a truly precious commodity for some of us.

  24. Laura says:

    Wow, what a great post. I too am extremely introverted. I’m the one standing there in social situations twiddling my thumbs with nothing to say. I will have to make a concerted effort to apply myself and practice. Thanks Trent!

  25. Gemond says:

    Trent writes:
    “…people pay money to see the results of gifts matched with choices. The real message here is that gifts are certainly a help, but it is choices that really take you places.”

    Pretty much agree with you on much of this insightful post. The key is whether you can find a place where your gifts are valued.

    Let’s take the gift of being honest and the ability to see through lies and liars. Say one is a person with a built-in BS detector. You’d think that would be a prized gift, wouldn’t you?

    Maybe if you’re employed as a journalist (in the few places left that employ them) but not so much in real life companies where pretty much you’re told to either lie or go along with lies, misrepresentations, etc.

    You can have a gift, and passion and make good choices and still not succeed today because the business world is not necessarily structured to reward a person’s gifts.

    We live in a world where people with NO discernible talent (other than self promotion) say like the “Real Housewives” of anywhere or other reality TV shows like Jersey Shore are paid lots of money while talented, creative writers –who have toiled for years at no or low pay to hone their craft–are unemployed because nobody wants to pay them for scripted TV shows that are creative, imaginative and not run of the mill or formulaic.

    This is only one example of industries where “no talent” and no work are rewarded.

    So, uneducated men and women who know how to build their muscles, get a tan and promote themselves…that’s a gift they’ve then chosen to promote. And THEY are a success while incredibly smart and gifted humans can’t get jobs teaching?

    Right. And you wonder why people are discouraged today. Spend a lifetime perfecting skills, developing experience and matching your passions and gifts and YOU still end up unemployed when folks who are good at stealing run companies and the government. Hmmm. Makes one wonder about how one uses one’s gifts. (Lots of talented folks know how to physically rob and steal from others. They, too, have passion and choices.)

  26. I’ve learned that the only thing to do is keep plugging away at the things that interest you, without worrying too much about immediate results. The rewards happen in unexpected ways.

    I was ready to give up on everything this year, bbut forced myself to keep working. In the last few weeks, everything turned around and I suddenly got good news on every front.

  27. Dana says:

    Best article you’ve written, hands down.

    I am currently in a PhD program in Chemistry and have yet to put in any real muscle. With my final obstacle to becoming a PhD candidate fast approaching, it was great for me to be motivated not to depend solely on my ‘gifts’ for this presentation, but to choose to do well.

  28. Edana says:

    I think this is a great article, and for the most part I agree, but Gemond raises an excellent point. In the arts, whether you’re a writer, actor, sculptor or singer, an immense amount of luck is required to become financially successful–the “right person” has to notice you and think that what you do will sell. Many of those who are truly talented have to find other jobs to support themselves, then struggle to find time for their passion. I really, really wish that gift+passion+choices=success, but I don’t believe it’s always the case.

  29. Courtney says:

    Thank you, Trent, for such a great post. You’ve articulated quite clearly a trend I’d noticed but never been able to name.

  30. Jawad Shuaib says:

    Amazing post, thank you so much!

  31. I think the sentence, “[...]the real home runs occur when a person knows their gifts and makes choices to accentuate that gift” has been playing through my mind. Sometimes it’s just hard to know what our gifts are. My husband and I have each been trying to figure out where our giftings are but haven’t found them yet…or if we have don’t know it.

  32. miss moolah says:

    I’m an average math student but my mother enrolled me in an engineering course. I really did poorly on Algebra but found it easier to understand Trigonometry. When I moved to a new school when she died I had to take Algebra again because of the discrepancy in the number of units. I was really depressed but then I also made a choice to be that other student and I finally got an A. However, I am really more impressed with those people who have natural Math gifts. Take my uncle for example. Even though he’s now 60 years old when you present a problem to him he no longer scans the textbook to remember how to do it again. As for my case I did well in the exams but when you do the same thing to me I would go to a reference text and study it again before I can give the perfect solution or answer. 

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