October 7, 2011

Reflections on Steve Jobs and His 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford

Learning of Steve Jobs' death, I went back to his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, which is mentioned in many "appreciations" and obits. I'd seen the address video several times in the past. But this time I printed it out. (I'm of the older generation that gets more out of reading an address than viewing it.)

He begins by noting: "I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation." He introduces his address by saying he has just three stories to tell.

Steve's Story No. 1 -- Connecting the Dots
Looking back over his life, Steve saw these dots that seemed random... at the time. With time and hindsight, he recognized that the elements were connected, and that they all contributed in leading him toward his work in the development of personal computers:

  • Steve's biological mother decided to put him up for adoption, but she felt strongly that he should be adopted by college graduates. But the college-graduate couple that has been selected decided "when I popped out that they really wanted a girl." So he went to the next couple on the waiting list. His adoptive mother never graduated from college, and his father never graduated from high school. His biological mother initially refused to sign the adoption papers but finally relented when the prospective parents promised that he would go to college.
  • At age 17, Steve did go to college -- for one semester. He "naively" picked Reed College, which was almost as expensive as Stamford. His working class parents' life savings were being spent on college tuition, and Steve had "no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out." After six months, he dropped out.
  • Looking back, Steve realized this "was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me and I began dropping in on the ones that looked interesting." He added: "Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on."  He gives this example:
  • At that time, Reed College offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Every campus poster, every label on every drawer, was created with beautiful calligraphy. He took a class and found it fascinating. 
  • Ten years later when he and Steve Wozniak were designing the first Macintosh computer, "it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography." Windows soon "just copied the Mac."
Summing up the lesson learned from this story, Steve said:
You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something  -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
I'm amazed at how, on a much smaller and more modest scale, my college and career paths were similar. I've often remarked on the major role that serendipity has played in my life. (More on all of that later, when I'll write about BNA -- the nation's oldest 100% employee-owned company -- where I stumbled in one day and ended up working for 40 years. It was sold last month to Bloomberg.)

Steve's Story No. 2 -- Love and Loss
When Steve was 20, he and "Woz" started Apple in Steve's parents' garage. Ten years later, at age 30, a year after Apple released their finest creation -- the Macintosh, Steve was fired. He and the new CEO of Apple had a falling out over the future of the company, and the board of directors sided with the CEO.

Steve initially was devastated and even thought of running away from Silicon Valley. Then Steve said, "something dawned on me -- I still loved what I did." So he decided to start over. He added:
I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."
In the next five years, Steve started the very successful NeXT and Pixar companies and "fell in love with the amazing woman who would become my wife."

Steve summed up for the Stanford grads the lesson learned from Story No. 2:
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe to be great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.
My own biggest "hit in the head with a brick" incident came when I was kicked out of Cornell Law School in March of my third year, when I was managing editor of the Law Review and No. 5 in class standings. My story, however, is less noble and more tawdry than Steve's, since I was expelled for conduct related to my alcoholism with repressed sexuality. I was sure -- at the time -- that getting the boot was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened. But I thank my lucky stars now. I would never have been happy as a lawyer or academic. Within a month, I'd secured an entry level job at BNA, which led to a happy and rewarding career, marriage to a co-worker, and a number of  friendships that have lasted to this day.

I wonder if Steve would have delivered such an upbeat and inspiring message today, when college graduates face a much more difficult and challenging future. I think he would have, though I suspect the audience would be more cynical.

"My Third Story Is About Death"
When he delivered this address in 2005, Steve had just undergone surgery to deal with the pancreatic cancer that had been diagnosed a year earlier. His doctors told him that thanks to the surgery he had dodged the bullet. Unfortunately, that's not the way it turned out.

Still, Steve's thoughts on facing death are worth thinking about:
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....
Your time is limited. So don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma-- which is living 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.
R.I.P. Steve Jobs
For both the text and video on the Stanford commencement address, see: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html