After Steve Jobs died, his famous 2005 speech to university graduates went viral all over again. Many find the address moving and inspiring. But in a magazine issue dedicated to students at the beginning of their adult lives, it’s worth asking: just how practical is the late Apple CEO’s advice?
Jobs began his speech by talking about his decision as a young man to quit college. Only after dropping out, he said, was he able to drop in on the classes he actually found interesting, such as instruction in calligraphy. (His knowledge of fancy lettering later paid off when Jobs was designing the typeface for the first Macintosh computer.) His point: you should always go with your gut, make bold decisions and “trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Surely we can all agree that giving up on formal education and, instead, learning how to draw pretty letters worked out well for Steve Jobs. Then again, Jobs was a genius and a once-in-a-generation creative talent, so I suspect that dropping out of school to study the banjo or grow the world’s largest pumpkin would also have done the trick.
For the rest of us? It’s asking a lot to put utter faith in Jobs’s life dots. Go ahead: drop out of school. Learn calligraphy. Wrestle a bear. THE DOTS WILL FIGURE IT OUT!
Let us pause to remember that most students who bail on college to attend calligraphy workshops do not wind up with a net worth in the billions and global fame as one of the century’s great innovators. Most wind up receiving, at best, some nice remarks about their penmanship.
Jobs’s next story involved getting fired from Apple and how it’s important not to lose faith even when life “hits you in the head with a brick.” This led to his second point—about the role of work in one’s life. Jobs told the graduates that they must, at all costs, seek a job that truly satisfies and energizes them. “If you haven’t found [your passion] yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”
This sounds very nice, and as an inspirational quote it would look terrific on a poster of a cat trying to ride a motorcycle. But here’s the thing: most of us non-geniuses do need to settle, at least to some degree. If we were all able to be what we truly wanted to be, Scarlett Johansson would need to employ 25 million thong butlers.
The message “Don’t settle” plays well to the commencement crowd. But far more interesting and useful would be to explore how best to settle. That’s the real challenge of becoming a grown-up—learning to manage the clash of personal and professional goals with life’s obligations and responsibilities. Trying to balance desire and duty. Understanding that work can be tolerable and perhaps even fulfilling, even if it falls short of inspiring.
Jobs’s final point—and the one his speech is best remembered for—was about death as a motivating force. He told the graduates: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose . . . There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
On its surface, this seems a perfectly reasonable platitude. We’re all going to be dead one day, so why not just go for it? Goodbye steady day job—hello thrilling world of professional trampolining!
But here’s proof that even a genius can overlook the obvious: you can listen to Jobs’s speech in its entirety without once getting the sense that important decisions can have consequences—that setbacks can be jarring, that comebacks aren’t guaranteed, that not all of us can walk away from a job and, as a certain Apple CEO could do, expect a couple thousand offers and several marriage proposals by the following morning.
To judge from this speech, Jobs’s concept of life resembled the products he created: beautiful, clean, simple. For most of us, it’s messier than that. Trusting it will all work out can lead you astray. Following your heart can sometimes get you hurt. The inevitability of death needn’t compel you to recklessly push your chips all-in.
Despite what Jobs said, it’s not a “trap” to believe we have something to lose. Having something to lose—and fighting to protect it—may just be what makes our lives worth living.