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Follow your heart? Get real.

Steve Jobs’s advice to graduates is very practical…if you happen to be a rich genius


 
Follow your heart? Get real.

AP; Bloomberg/Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

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.


 

Follow your heart? Get real.

  1. well-written. Jobs represents an idealism which most of us cannot afford to imitate. But there is no need to be overly critical of him since he was only giving his point of view, though ingenius is still one single opinion in a world that now surpassed 7 billion people.

    • There was nothing ingenious about Jobs. For every Steve Wozniak there were 100 Steve Jobs.

      Jobs was a bad manager with an idea that had to happen. Like the wall light-switch. Or the door mail-slot. Nobody remembers who ‘innovated’ those glorious things.

      His touted ‘tough-guy’, ‘get-things-done’ style was nothing special, and was mixed with a poor people attitude, managerial incompetence, and technical ignorance that was almost shocking.

      His decision, laid down as law, that the first Mac should have no memory-expansion potential was violated behind his back by his chief engineer, who understood the market would demand 500-1000K very shortly.

      And Jobs was so ignorant of the trick, despite his micro-managerial style, that his engineers were able to save Apple from an Atari/Commodore style marginalization, and that probably permanently.

      In sum, then, Jobs was a 3 steps forward, 2 steps back entrepreneur, at least one of those forward steps really the work of the bright people under him.

      • I do think Jobs was important, as a visionary, as opposed to as a technician. Woz was a brilliant engineer, but if you read his autobiography, it is clear that he was just interested in doing cool stuff. Similarly, Xerox, not Apple came up with the first GUI and mouse, but never marketed it. Jobs saw the potential and acted right away.

        You also give his return to Apple (by far the source of his bigger achievements) short shrift. Through Pixar he revolutionized animation, i-tunes has turned the music business upside down, and the i-phone – though not the first smartphone – was a gamechanger (the key being the inclusion of apps). 

        I think your interpretation is focused too much on invention, and too little on entrepreneurship. Think about cars – they were around for awhile before Ford devised a process that could produce them cheaply enough that they became available for the masses. You need somebody to take a product from the theoretical stage to the market, and Jobs was very good at that. It’s easy to say that this would have happened anyway, but that begs the question of why it hadn’t. Why isn’t Xerox a household name in computing? Why didn’t Woz have many successful big ideas after Apple, while Jobs did? 

        I agree that Jobs was a bad manager, but even then, the fact that Apple now has the second-highest market capitalization in the world may suggest something about the usefulness of good management vs. good ideas.

  2. What’s a “thong butler”?

  3. I fail to see what a thong and Scarlett Johansson have in common with Mr. Jobs? Was this photo for real? Or some Ad. persons wet fantasy?

    • Are you for real?  This is Feschuk’s wet fantasy and so obviously photoshopped that your comment boggles my mind…

      • oops. You are right. Missed that it was by Feschuk. Sorry I am indeed

  4. 25,000,001, actually.

  5. This concept of “just do what you love and everyone will congratulate you for it” is what’s gotten us into the mess we’re in right now – an entire generation of young adults that know how to do absolutely nothing useful or employable, but who think that the world owes them a living for doing it. 

    • Generalizing just a tad, aren’t you H.E.? 

    • Shorter HE: Kids today…hey, get off my lawn!

    • The opposite is the case.  The mess were are in right now was created by greedy individuals who believe that success is measured in dollars and that getting those dollars—no matter whom you hurt—is all that matters.  Our media is teaching a generation of kids that fame and wealth are all that matter.  It’s not okay to lead a quiet, modest life in the pursuit of something you love.  That kind of life is for “crazy people.”

    • who says you have to be employable?

  6. I think Jobs would be right in a world where young people could better find out what their true strengths and desires are, as well as their limitations. However, they are unlikely to be able to do so effectively in the present environment.

    It is too easy to do well in high school, too easy to get into any given program in university, and to easy to do well in university. As a result students go through their early life with little sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are. They all aspire to be members of the creative, professional class, with high pay and good work-life balance, although it is impossible for everybody to have those types of jobs. 

    Constraints and failure force people to make tough choices and difficult self-appraisals – as a member of generation Y, I certainly wish I had left high school/university with a better sense of my limits.

  7. His speech is about trying your hardest and not giving up, i dont believe hes implying students drop out of school but to not put your dreams on the back burner! Theres a difference between dreaming of a certain lifestyle and achieving the lifestyle you want. Not everyone can be a rockstar but that doesnt mean you cant manage the band, one dream can always string off into a different career option. I believe his speech states that, and is not meant to give false hope.

  8. Feschuk doesn’t get it. The path he describes is the one of mediocrity and scarcity. Decisions made from fear. Very few will be as successful as Jobs but anyone can follow their bliss. Read some Joseph Campbell Scott.

    • Your bliss can lead you to a dead end or over the cliff or if you are as lucky a bliss-follower as Steve Jobs to a life that ends with Oh Wow! 

      I imagine that bliss is required to get to the Wow, but bliss in itself is not enough.

      • The Wow is not the point, it is the bonus. Dead-end, over the cliff are possible – more risk but more reward.

  9. Good on ya’, Scott Feschuk!  I’m so tired of the mass of us ‘ordinary’ people worshiping at the feet of the ‘extraordinary’ few. I would like to say that you took the words right out of my mouth, but I’d be complimenting myself there … anyway thank you for saying it so straight.
    Carol Poole

    •  ‘I’m so tired of the mass of us ‘ordinary’ people worshiping at the feet of the ‘extraordinary’ few’

      Really?  Who does that?

      Canada is well known for it’s ‘tall poppy’ syndrome

    • Thanks….well said.

  10. What a lazy and poorly written article.

  11. That speech gives me shivers. It’s just too idealistic. In a perfect world, we would all just drop everything we are doing.  I would pursue my life long fantasy of being a writer. But being a writer is a full-time committment and it requires that I take time off from real world obligations, ie bills to pay and building up personal savings so I don’t end up on government hand-outs when I am old and grey.  Steve Jobs was a special gift to the world. I would just take that speech with a grain of salt.  

    • are you saying you wouldn’t be any good as a writer and won’t earn enough income from it to pay your bills and your ‘real world obligations?’

  12. Wow, did you ever miss the point. “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.”  You equate success with riches and fame here.  Steve Jobs paid himself a $1 a year annual salary.  He could have had a massive, sprawling gated mansion, but he lived in a nice, normal house. I.e. he didn’t do it for the money.  He didn’t do it for the fame, either—quite the opposite—he was a very private man.  In fact, when you have any amount of wealth or notoriety, it makes taking risks—important, bold risks—all that much more difficult.

    Kids coming out of college today think money and fame are measures of success.  They couldn’t be more wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong. Passion is the only reason to peruse a goal, and whether that passion leads to money or fame is irrelevant.  The people who screwed over a global economy? Tell me that they were in pursuit of passion and not money.

  13. “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.'”.  It’s a wonderful platitude.  As long as you were making multiple-millions of dollars when you were fired.  If you’re fired while trying to pay the bills, feed the kids, and enjoy the tiny slice of the American Dream… then it might be a bit more urgent then if you have to let go of your 3rd Mercedes.

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