The premiere of the new Steve Jobs film is a good occasion to revisit his remarkable 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.
What he had to say on that sunny California day was more than merely inspiring. It was transcendent. And though he was speaking to an audience of mostly undergraduates, his words have special significance for lawyers.
He did it in the simplest possible way. He told stories. Three of them, in fact, and all three were stories we can easily relate to.
The first was about how a random art class led to major business success. The second was about love. The last one was about death.
1. Connecting the Dots
Jobs dropped out of Reed College after spending six unhappy months as a student there. But he stuck around as a “drop-in” for another 18 months or so before actually leaving. During that time, he slept on the floor of friends’ rooms, earned money by collecting empty Coke bottles and walked seven miles every Sunday for a hot meal at the Hare Krishna temple.
He also wandered into random courses that struck his fancy, even though he was not an official student. One of these was a calligraphy class.
“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we 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. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.”
2. Love and Loss
The second story is about the circuitous path of love.
Jobs says he was lucky to have discovered his passion for computers early in life. He started what would become Apple in his garage with his buddy Woz when he was 20. Within 10 years, the company was a $2 billion dynamo with 4,000 employees.
And then he got fired.
“What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for a few months…. 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. During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman [Laurene] who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together. I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.
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.”
3. Live Each Day As If It Were Your Last
His final story cuts to the chase. He recounts how he received his first diagnosis of cancer. He speaks candidly of his fear and devastation. But then he had an epiphany. He used the prospect of his imminent demise to reshape his purpose in life.
“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.
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.
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.”
Few of us have lives as celebrated and dramatic as Steve Jobs. Yet at our core, we’re all the same. We understand when he says, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.” We feel uplifted when he says keep going anyway.
And we thrill to his final words: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and was formerly Legal Editor at N.C. Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual.