Many years ago, I stumbled on one of Jeff Bezos’ commencement addresses. He described an early childhood experience, where he was in a car with his grandparents. His grandmother was a heavy smoker, and Bezos, in an attempt to show how smart he was, calculated the number of years she had left given her habit. There was silence in the car, he says, the expected praise did not come. His grandmother wept silently. Later, his grandfather took him to the side and counselled him that, “when given a choice in life to be kind or to be smart, choose to be kind.”
Commencement addresses come and go, but this one stayed with me. It flew in the face of everything the world pushes us to do. Like most people, I responded to these cues throughout my 20s. I was intensely focused on showing my smartness. My whole life, in fact, had been geared to be the smartest kid in the room. As I entered the workforce, I felt the prevailing pressure in the atmosphere to make the most incisive comment, the soundest argument, the cleverest idea.
The world rewards smart. I received praise and recognition in school because of my academic grades; my grade reports were just that, grades. How kind I had been in the school year was not measured. I entered some of the world’s best universities because of my SAT, GMAT and other test scores that measured my intellectual capabilities. Career opportunities followed the same path. Demonstrating my smartness was the overriding theme.
But what about kindness? Throughout all this, it has gone unnoticed and unasked for. I don’t recall any college entry essay asking me about a time when I did a kind thing. No job interview has probed me on kindness either. It feels like as long as you’re not a monster, you’re accepted in society. It’s a pretty low bar.
So, I stopped in my tracks when I heard the head of Amazon exhorting me to choose kindness over smartness.
Since the time I heard that speech, I have been exploring Buddhism. I suspect that speech propelled me towards it, in some measure. I listened to the Dalai Lama, I watched him interact with people, and I read the words of ancient and not so ancient philosophers and sages, including Shantideva and Alan Watts. Everywhere, I became aware of the same echo. Kindness is more in sync with life, it allows life to flow. Smartness, when used to assert superiority and dominance, blocks life.
My explorations of Buddhism have led me towards mindful living, and as I have become more mindful, I have discovered that I am happiest when I am kind. There is nothing comparable to the way a face lights up when I give an unsolicited, sincere compliment. Or the way a stray dog’s head relaxes into my lap after I gently pet it and allow it to stay near me.
This is not to say that I’ve stopped being smart. I still use my intellect as aggressively and insistently as before. The difference is, I use it more and more in the service of kindness. Now, it is less about wowing people and more about winning them over with compassion. If my intelligence helps me be kinder, I use it.
Every day, we get presented with one micro-question over and over: are you going to be kind or are you going to be smart? The question has become an important guidepost for me as I navigate through the day. Hundreds of big and small choices confront us, asking us what type of person we want to be. We are the sum of our choices, ultimately. In my experience, Bezos’ grandfather said it right: every single time, choose kindness.