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I have already covered two-thirds of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to graduating students at Stanford. He adopted the powerful technique of telling stories from his life – stories from which he extracted fundamental principles of ethics and action. He used those personal stories as launching pads for conclusions relevant to his listeners’ lives. This is not easy for a speaker to do, but when he does it well, it is highly effective. It can even change a few listeners’ lives.
The first story was on his dropping out of Reed College. Message: you cannot connect the dots of your life in advance, but you can in retrospect.
Assumption: there is an overall coherence in life that we cannot see day by day. The second was on being fired from Apple in 1985, then re-hired in 1997. The message: don’t settle in life. Don’t compromise with your basic beliefs. Never quit.
We now come to his third story. “My third story is about death.” This is a good theme to end the story of any life.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
This is good advice. It is not easy advice to take. It is not an easy plan to implement. Why not? Because it deals with that final event in a lifetime with which everyone must settle. Most people prefer to avoid considering it on a regular basis. Not so with Jobs.
THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL
Jobs was a master of digital tools. But digital tools were not his crucial tool, as he explained.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
This much is true. It is profoundly true. “Naked thou came into this world, and naked thou shalt depart.” Or, more authoritatively, “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (I Timothy 6:7).
Question: “How much did he leave behind?” Answer: “All of it!”
He said that this realization was “the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” This is an important admission. When one of the world’s richest men, who earned his money the hard way – serving customers for three decades – says that one thing was the crucial tool in his success, it is wise for his listeners to pay attention.
What is truly important? Not the following: “all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure.” But we must be careful in accepting at face value a rhetorically charged litany of anything in a speaker’s presentation. Even if the list is accurate, it may not really illustrate the point he is making.
THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE
I don’t believe this part: that he regarded as peripheral all expectations. He was intensely future-oriented. This fact was the bedrock foundation of conclusion #2: “Don’t settle.” Why should anyone adopt this principle? Only because he thinks there are negative consequences for not honoring it. That is, he has expectations. He believes that causes and effects are linked. This deeply religious faith was the underlying principle of his first story about connecting life’s dots. He believed that something greater than what we see here and now governs the connecting of life’s dots.
People are purpose-driven to one degree or another. We act. We decide. We have expectations about the results of our actions. Ludwig von Mises made this the foundation of his economic theory. As actors, we have external expectations. We think that the world will be a slightly different place – a better place, at least for us – after we take a course of action.
Steve Jobs was one of those rare individuals whose decisions changed the external world. He was invited to speak at Stanford because of this.
Conclusion: external expectations are an inescapable concept. It is never a question of external expectations vs. no external expectations. It is always a question of which external expectations.
On the other hand, these three ought to be peripheral in our decision-making: “all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure.” Obviously, this is not easy. Jobs seemed to be governed by pride, but maybe not. He was surely governed with supreme self-confidence. If not, he could not have adopted and then implemented this principle: “Don’t settle.” This was why he could overcome his fear of embarrassment or failure.
Jobs was a genius in the broadest sense. He was in the same league as Thomas Edison: a major creator in several fields. He was a skilled technician. He was also an artist. His mastery of form and function rivaled that of Raymond Lowey, who was never widely known, but who was a Jobs-like industrial designer. His success at Pixar indicates how incomparably versatile he was. But all of it would have come to naught before he even began if he had been burdened with the fear of embarrassment or the fear of failure. This triumph over these two common human emotions marks the great entrepreneurs.
Edison made this remark famous: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” It was an exaggeration, but clever. It has stood the test of time. Yet that intense perspiration will not be expended apart from one’s internal triumph over the fear of embarrassment and the fear of failure. This means that the successful person must escape the limits of the normal human comfort zone. The comfort zone is, in my view, a far greater barrier than the constraints of financial capital. It is easier to raise money than it is to overcome the fear of failure and the fear of embarrassment. If you do not achieve the second, you will not achieve the first.
Jobs was making a point. “These things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” We are back to Kris Kristofferson’s lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” That, too, is a profound insight.
WEALTH AND RESPONSIBILITY
The more you accumulate, the more you have to lose. This is a constraint on freedom of action. Wealth increases some choices – the choices based on money – but it imposes others: the choices based on responsibility. There is no escape from responsibility in a free society. You must act economically on behalf of some future customers and disregard the expectations of all the others. You must allocate your money and your time. Whatever you spend on one project you cannot spend on another.
Did you ever have to make up your mind; Pick up on one and leave the other behind? It’s not often easy and not often kind. Did you ever have to make up your mind?
Jobs was saying that the fear of losing whatever you possess must not constrain you in your pursuit of some vision, some connecting of the dots. He had a lot to lose. He learned that when he got fired. He rebounded. He went out in 1985 as a very rich man. But he went out a failure and embarrassed, as he told his audience. He had to put that behind him. The next time around – after 1997 – he was even more unwilling to settle.
Yet we all must settle. In most of our lives, we must settle. We should refuse to settle in those key areas that he designated as “truly important.”
This is where most people prefer not to venture: identifying what is truly important in their lives, and thereby also identifying where they must refuse to settle in the connecting of their lives’ dots. Yet we must, he said.
He then began Story #3.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and “get my affairs in order,” which is doctor’s code for “prepare to die.” It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
From the day we are born, the Great Physician tells us to get our affairs in order. Every religion tells us this. But, because the termination date is not given to us, we procrastinate.
Then one day, Jobs received something like a termination date.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.
There are skeptics who say that Jobs was using that speech to persuade investors that Apple was a good company to invest in. He was free of cancer. That motivation was possible, but the nature of the message of Story #3 would seem to preclude this. So was the message of Story #2: “Don’t settle.” Story #3 was about settling.
This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
This was the central message of his speech. It could have been inserted into any graduation speech over the last century. But, because Jobs had gone through the valley of the shadow of death, his words had more impact. Rhetorically, this was the heart of the speech. He had emotionally faced death. He had come face to face with “life’s change agent.”
As a speaker, he was gifted. He fused the central message of his speech with its central rhetorical flourish. In his previous two stories, he matched lesser messages and lesser rhetorical flourishes. The stakes were not so high. Here, he went for what salesmen call the close. Here, he called his listeners to action.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
THE NEED FOR DOGMA
If taken literally, this is silly: “Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” A commencement address is more laced with dogma than most sermons. A commencement speech is a sermon. It is more a sermon than almost any other form of speech. Funeral sermons are rhetorically subdued, due to the nature of the event. Graduation speeches are rites of passage for the future leaders of society in the West. They are where leaders do their best to persuade their listeners of something. Job’s commencement address is the supreme model of the genre.
In short, dogma is an inescapable concept. It is never a question of dogma vs. no dogma. It is always a question of which dogma. And whose.
“And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” I agree. But we are now back to message #1 from Story #1: the underlying coherence, relevance, and lifetime power of whatever connects the dots. He invoked providence, but it is the providence of each person’s inner voice.
What connects the dots? How does the inner voice – not Son of Sam’s inner voice, I trust – recognize the underlying pattern of the dots and then communicate this information to us? What is intuition? Why should we trust it? Jobs was serving as Rev. Jobs that day. But Rev. Jobs never made the transition from rhetoric – emotional appeal – to logic: a causal explanation for the connection of the dots.
THE CALL TO ACTION
Then he offered an example.
When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.
Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970’s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
Here ended the lesson.
It was a masterful sermon. As an occasional writer for The Whole Earth Catalog and the Whole Earth Epilog, I appreciate his reference. The foolishness reference attracts me. As the apostle Paul wrote, long before the Whole Earth Catalog, “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (I Corinthians 1:26-27).
Jobs is dead. He did not get those extra decades. He got an extra six years. He put those years to productive uses. Customers benefited greatly. His final gadget, the iPhone4s, sold more units in the first three days than any new product in the history of manufacturing: almost four million units. He did not live to see this. The phone was announced on October 4. He died on October 5.
So, what was his sermon’s message? He laid this out masterfully: (1) the dots are connected in a providential way, somehow; (2) don’t settle, at least not in the areas that matter; (3) the inescapable reality of death is supposed to help us identify what is sufficiently important so as not to settle. This all adds up to high-order foolishness, he said. Be foolish.
Like the child who asks, “But who created God?” I would have asked Jobs: “But what connects the dots?” He never said. I don’t know if he ever spent much time searching for an answer to the question. But his life was surely an astounding series of connected dots.
As another commencement speaker said, “Go and do thou likewise.” But get the dots question answered.