Being Right vs. Being Kind

As a young kid, I cared a lot about being right. I do not know if it was due to my interest in subjects that had one right answer, like Mathematics or Computer Science. Perhaps it was due to something else. Whatever the reason, I cared about getting things right. I also cared about making sure the other person had the “correct” opinion/understanding/fact.

This seemed like a good way to think about things. Until I grew up.

As I got into my 20s, I realized it’s extremely hard to change people’s minds. A simple exercise is when you had a strong belief about something that turns out to be wrong. You may need some time to change your mind — or even consider the opposite argument.

A few years ago, I came across the story about a young Jeff Bezos. It goes along these lines:

When he was a kid, Jeff Bezos used to spend a lot of time with his grandparents, including traveling in their car. Both his grandparents were heavy smokers — and Jeff hated the smell. One day, having heard of an ad about how every puff of smoke takes away x number of minutes from your life, Jeff came up with a clever idea to convince his grandma to quit smoking. He proudly proclaimed to his grandmother, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”

He expected a pat on the back — on the contrary, his grandma burst into tears. Jeff was shocked and did not know what to do. His grandfather then got off the car, took Jeff close to him, and taught him an unforgettable lesson in a calm and gentle manner:

Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.

Jeff Bezos’ grandfather

Jeff Bezos would go onto narrate this incident at the commencement address to Princeton’s Class of 2010. Here’s a full transcript of his speech. Here’s a video of the speech.

The point of this narrative is not to judge whether Jeff Bezos is a good man or not — but it’s about taking the right lessons from everyone’s life.

As Jeff says, “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”

You can work to be intelligent, but you can’t choose to be intelligent. But you can always choose to be kind — even when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.

Another lesson from Jeff Bezos’ narrative: look how kind and gentle his grandpa was while imparting the lesson of kindness to his grandson. If he had said it in a harsh way, perhaps that lesson would not have been that much more powerful.

In this age of COVID-19 and fake news, we may be tempted to criticize someone for sharing fake news or getting something wrong. Now, I still am careful about fake news and try to minimize it in my network. However, instead of criticizing people for sharing fake news, perhaps we can just point them to a fact-checking site or give them the facts that what they shared is fake news. This is only one example, of how we can try to be kinder rather than trying to sound smart.

Another example is when making decisions as a team. Perhaps you may have the “right answer”. But if you are being arrogant about getting things right before others, chances are your opinion will not be taken. The aim is not to be fake, but rather be kind while still getting the right answer. In other words, it’s incredibly important to be a “team-player”.

Also, do not say something unkind and wrap it with garbage language. It can have negative repercussions down the road in your career.

Being kind gives more admiration than being clever. Look at the people in your life you dearly love — chances are they are kind folks. If someone is kind on top of being clever, that’s even better. But if people figure out someone is faking it, then they will eventually lose respect.

As a concluding note, this is also something I think about often:

Compete, without being jealous.
Help, without being patronizing.
Understand, without being judgemental.

Notes

Here are some learnings based on the thoughts of the kind folks who gave me feedback on this piece:

  • We must remember to be kind to ourselves too. This is huge as I am often very hard on myself to achieve standards that are near impossible.
  • To influence, you usually have to make people feel good about changing their minds. Like ‘Good point about x. But did you also notice y?’
  • To make sure being ‘nice’ does not get in the way of doing the right thing as indecisiveness can sometimes lead to politics. Also, I’d say being kind and being nice can mean very different things based on the situation.


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