Smartest guy at Princeton

His name? Yasantha Rajakarunanayake. Here's who remembered him. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Do you ever wonder if you’ll have a lasting effect on the world?

The truth is, your greatest effects might turn out to be things you never know about. 

The kind gesture to someone when he or she needs it most.

The example you give to someone that leads them to pursue what turns out to be their calling.

Jeff Bezos revealed the story behind one such person in his life—someone who had no idea that he’d done anything, or that Bezos even remembered him.

It was back in college, and it involves a classmate Bezos described as “a humble, wonderful guy … the smartest guy at Princeton.”

The story goes like this: When Bezos was young, he had his heart set on becoming a theoretical physicist.

He enrolled at Princeton as a member of the class of 1986, one of about 20 students in the elite electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) program. 

“There were brilliant people everywhere,” a classmate said, describing the program a few years ago. “We EECS geeks ... were a quiet, overwhelmingly male group of eccentric misfits.”

Bezos fit right in—but, although he was clearly very intelligent (he’d been the valedictorian of his high school class, and a National Merit Scholar)—he by no means thought of himself as the smartest student in the program.

That honor, to his mind, went to a classmate named Yasantha Rajakarunanayake, who was from Sri Lanka. And Bezos shared the moment that became truly clear.

Bezos and his roommate had been working for three hours on a partial differential equation, getting nowhere. They brought it to Yasantha, who stared at it for a couple of minutes and came up with the answer—without even writing anything down: “Cosine.”

Then, he walked Bezos and his roommate through the problem, writing three full pages of detailed algebra. Years before, Yasantha explained nonchalantly, he'd solved a similar problem years—so he'd just “mapped this problem on to that problem.”

“That was an important moment for me,” Bezos recalled on stage, “because it was the very moment I realized I was never going to be a great theoretical physicist.”

It was a good laugh line. But, the thing I like most about this story is how Yasantha Rajakarunanayake reacted afterward. The two men hadn't talked since Princeton, and yet—

“Wow! Jeff is talking about me,” Rajakarunanayake wrote on Twitter when he heard the story. “Amazingly he remembers interacting with me 34 years ago. What a memory! Also no Amazon if it weren’t for this, since he decided not to pursue physics!”

Rajakarunanayake also had a few recollections about Bezos, too — including the fact that even if he wasn’t the absolute smartest person in the elite program at Princeton, he was one of the hardest, most dedicated workers.

He recalled another time when Bezos stayed up all night on a project, finding a better solution than the one Rajakarunanayake came up with.

“Jeff was an excellent student, and a very persistent, tenacious one. That is unique to him,” he recalled to an Indian newspaper, The Print. He “will not give up like most of us would when presented with a challenge.”

That's probably the ultimate combination: not just smart, not just tenacious, but both together in a single package.

And that's as good an explanation as any for why Bezos built Amazon, and you and I didn't.

By the way, Yasantha Rajakarunanayake is doing fine. He went on after Princeton to earn a doctoral degree at ​Caltech, and has received 54 U.S. patents, with 40 others currently pending, according to The Print. “Currently, he is based in California and serves as a senior director for MediaTek, a Taiwanese semiconductor firm.”

7 other things worth your time

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Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr. I shared this story on my Inc.com column. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. And now, you can also get it by text at (718) 866-1753.

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