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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