Six years before Steve Jobs passed away he gave a commencement speech to the young students of Stanford in which he gave three pieces of advice that all of us should take seriously. It comes to me when someone I know recently had a potential brush with a stroke but happily for him it was only a brush, but it gave him a different perspective on life and I guess death.
He’s the one who reminded me to have another look at Steve’s observations and I’m glad I did.
Kicking off, Steve, who had then beaten pancreatic cancer, said he wanted to share three stories from his life.
He told the audience that he dropped out of college as a young man and as he said: “This is the closest I have ever gotten to a college graduation!”
His first story was “about connecting the dots”. He explained even though he dropped out of college he converted to a drop-in for 18 months before he actually quit. It meant he was not limited by the requirements of a course and simply pursued the subjects that fascinated him and basically dropped into lectures.
He was also driven by the fact that his biological mother had adopted him out to his life-parents who’d promised her that Steve would go to college.
They kept their part of the bargain but Steve said in all good conscience that he could not let them spend their life-savings on something he was destined to undervalue or even fail at.
He said dropping out was scary but it effectively gave him a competitive edge, which later manifested itself in the uniqueness of Apple.
Beds in dorms were switched for floors in friends’ rooms. He collected Coke bottles for the 5 cent coins and walked seven miles every Sunday for a free meal at the local Hari Krishna temple!
“I loved it!” he claimed. “And much of all I stumbled into following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”
One of his odd course selections was a calligraphy course, which later drove the unique and groundbreaking typography of the first Mac computer.
“It was the first computer with beautiful typography – if I had never dropped into that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple type faces or proportionally spaced fonts,” he revealed. “And as Windows simply copied the Mac, it’s likely no personal computer would have had them!”
Yep, that jibe at Bill Gates brought laughter and applause.
He accepted he could not join the dots looking forward but it was easy to do so looking backwards. In a spirit of inspiration Steve told the young students listening that one day they will be able to look back on their past and be able to join the dots. His implication was make sure that you collect some really valuable dots.
He was saying to everyone, no matter your age, that you have to do stuff today that will help you join really great dots in the future to be successful or wealthy or inspirational to those who follow you and to be happy, or all of the above.
Believing that the dots will eventually join and give you something worthwhile to justify pursuing, something you love or need to do is the encouragement to be brave.
As I listened to Jobs I thought of the poet Robert Frost, who wrote:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Steve certainly travelled an extraordinarily odd path and look at the difference he brought!
His next story is relevant to all of us – it was about love and loss.
Reflecting on how he and Steve Wozniack, at age 20, created Apple in a garage that became a two billion dollar company with 4000 employees in 10 years, he proved that being a success comes with its challenges and actually being a success can actually hold you back!
Not long after creating what he called their best product ever – the Mac – he was fired! He did not go into the story but he ended up on the wrong side of his board and a new CEO was appointed and he was out.
He said it was “devastating” but despite his disappointment, he was rescued by his realisation that he still loved what he did. In a sense love trumped loss.
So he started again and as he put it: “I didn’t see it then but being fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He said it freed him to start again and gave him the lightness of being a beginner again, which was better for his creativity than the heaviness of being a success.
Over the next five years he started a company called NeXT and then Pixar, which became famous with its digitally-created movie called Toy Story.
Remarkably Apple bought NeXT and Steve was brought back home and it was the technology created by NeXT that explained Apple’s unbelievable company turnaround with iPods, iPads, iPhones, etc.
He says this jolt to his complacency or “being hit in the head with a brick” was effectively a lucky break.
“I’m convinced what kept me going was that I loved what I did,” he admitted. “You’ve got to find what you love and it is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.”
Our work fills a large part of our lives so he insists we have to seek to do great work and that’s defined by you with what you love to do.
His advice is to keep looking and you will know when you’ve found it and with all good relationships it gets better and better as it goes on.
“Don’t settle. Keep looking,” he counseled.
His third story was about death and it was inspired with his battle with cancer.
He reflected upon a quote he read as a 17-year-old that read: “If you live every day as if it was your last, some day you most certainly will be right.”
For 33 years after that he says he asked himself if this was his last day would he want to do what he was about to do today? And when the answer was no for too many days in a row he said he knew he had to change something.
This process captures the characteristic of many high achievers – they commit to what most people won’t do. It’s their point of difference or their road less travelled and it does make all of the difference.
A few weeks back I wrote about Shawn Anchor who worked at Harvard and showed that success doesn’t bring happiness as many think, but if you look at life with a happy and positive lens then success is more likely to follow.
Someone like Jobs asking that question daily has a system to avoid unhappiness and failure. (At the end of this look at Steve Jobs I will return to what Anchor told us can make us happy and positive, in case you forgot about it or forgot to do commit the process!)
“Remembering I’ll be dead soon has been the most important tool I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all embarrassment of failure, these just fall away in face of death.”
Steve told the audience about his then recent escape from a death sentence when the doctors found he had a rare type of pancreatic cancer that was actually operable. Prior to that discovery he had been told by his doctor “to get his affairs in order”!
He said the actual threat of death was clearly more inspirational for change than his daily talks to himself about what if this was your last day?
His brush with death made him tell his young audience not to waste their lives – living someone else’s life, being trapped by dogma or allowing others’ opinions drowning out yours.
His message was that we all have to follow our hearts on what we want to become.
Steve concluded recounting one of his favourite publications of the late 1960s and with its last issue the back page had a country road – maybe a road less travelled? – and it came with the caption: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
This was his message to the students as he signed off but I wish he had said: “Stay hungry. Stay inquisitive. Stay positive. Stay changeable.”
But I guess I might not have said that if I hadn’t listened to Steve. The power of a positive influence can never be underestimated.
(Oh yes, this is what Shawn Anchor says can boost your happiness and get the Happiness Advantage by doing the following for 21 days):
1) Bring gratitude to mind: write down three NEW things that you are grateful for each day.
2) Journal: about a positive experience you’ve had recently for 2 minutes once a day.
3) Exercise: engage in 15 minutes of mindful cardio activity.
4) Meditate: watch your breath go in and out for 2 minutes a day.
5) Engage in a random, conscious act of kindness: write a 2-minute positive email thanking a friend or colleague, or compliment someone you admire on social media.
The question you have to ask yourself is: how badly do you want happiness and success?
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