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Lessons From a Legend
Steve Jobs’ Commencement address at Stanford on 12th June 2005 is one of the all-time most shared, most-watched inspirational speeches of all time. Its impact doesn’t seem to dim even now, over a decade later. It’s truly a timeless reminder for creators, artists and writers everywhere.
The address is stunning – not least because listening to it now in 2016, five years after the death of the enigmatic entrepreneur, one can’t help but feel an eerie foreshadowing at the fondness with which he talks of death.
The Universality of the Creative Life
What stood out most to me when I first heard the speech, and still resonates today when I listen to it for maybe the dozenth time, is the remarkable universality and significance of his address.
In years to come, the message from this address will echo across many different landscapes, as it did when it was first given: from graduate, to entrepreneur, from business tycoon right down to the humble writer, Jobs’ lessons remain true to this day.
We admire Jobs as much for his creative principles as for his success in business and I’d love to take a moment with you to revisit this iconic address, and draw out the lessons that spoke loudest to me, and that perhaps might also speak to you.
Whether you’re just getting started with your writing, already published, a small business owner taking your first steps, or just an interested passer-by, let’s revisit it together…
1. The Best Things Come When You Don’t Force It
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
We can none of us predict the future or know the consequences of the decisions we take today — whether good or bad.
Jobs recounts the story of when he dropped out of Reed College after only six months, not being able to see the point in continuing to study or to waste his parents’ money on something he wasn’t committed to.
He dropped his compulsory classes and started to drop into ones that interested — notably calligraphy.
A fateful decision as it was this calligraphy class that, ten years’ later, inspired him to design a computer with beautiful typography. Would that have happened without the chain of events back in college? Who knows. He certainly could not have predicted its usefulness at the time.
The same is true in life.
Why Try to Predict the Future?
It’s often those seemingly insignificant encounters and experiences that lead to greater things. And it so often isn’t about doing things ‘by the book’ that gets you the opportunity to publish, to reach an audience, or to get in front of that friend of a friend who can open doors to even bigger opportunities.
Life lessons: cherish the small things that happen when you stop trying to make the big things happen, because it might just be the small thing that leads to your biggest success.
2. Freedom Fuels Creativity
The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.
At the age of 30, Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he had spent his whole adult life building.
He was devastated, not surprisingly. But the period after was the most creative of his life, starting both NeXT and Pixar, supporting Pixar to make the world’s first computer animated film, and meeting and falling in love with his future wife.
Jobs attributes this period of intense creativity to being free of the weight and expectation of success. To being free to experiment, to learn again. He had already ‘failed’ so where else was there to go?
Creative Freedom is a Gift
We can all harness this same feeling in our lives in some small way. Yes, there are bills to pay and deadlines to meet, but can you free up even an hour, or perhaps two, to step away and express your own creative freedom, whatever that looks like?
How would it feel to begin something new? Something that wasn’t for anyone else? What if you could create something that might never be published, something that’s purely for you, something playful and experimental?
Can you create a free space in your life where anything is allowed? Where you can start a project just because you want to?
Because sometimes those ideas that flow from the beginner’s mind, with no expectation of success, are the ones that give us most joy, and can bring us the accolades we secretly crave.
Life lessons: make some time, however small, to be free to create and experiment, to go back to basics with no expectation of success.
3. Love What You Do
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 is great work.
After that momentous firing from Apple, Jobs felt the shame of failure, of rejection, and that he felt he’d let down a whole generation of entrepreneurs. But, he shares, loving his work was enough to be the catalyst to picking himself up and starting again.
If you don’t love your work, he says, you will never be truly satisfied.
Later in his life, he asked each morning whether he was excited to go in to work that day. If the answer was ‘no’ for several days in a row, he took it as a sign that something needed to change.
We Can Decide to Change
We might feel we don’t have the luxury to change what we do on a whim, but self-regulation is something that can work at different levels.
Do you listen to those messages in your head? Are you loving what you do? And what can you change in a small way to reintroduce self-empowerment into your life?
It doesn’t even have to be a change, sometimes it can be a change of outlook. What if you decided to love your commute to the office? What if you decided to take pleasure in the cold winter’s day, rather than staring at pictures of sunnier climes?
What if you decided to get up an hour earlier to write that book you’re dreaming of?
Nobody’s life, or work, is ever perfect, but we can be proactive about making changes to stay in touch with what we love, because loving what you do makes it so much easier to get up in the morning.
What’s in Your Control?
Sometimes the things we need to change are within ourselves: our attitude, our expectations of ourself and others, our emotional connection to people and situations.
But often, we can make simple external changes – like getting more exercise, extending a deadline, or hiring a new editor – changes that will lift the weight of expectation and bring back the love for what we do every day.
Life lessons: ask yourself whether you’re excited to get out of bed in the morning and, if the answer is no, ask what you can change about your outlook or your situation.
4. Be Yourself and Stand Firm
Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.
Oh this is so often quoted, because we allow the opinions of others to take over what we do and how we feel.
It’s not as simple as saying ‘live every day as if it were your last.’ Jobs isn’t telling us to do the crazy things, to not wait, to live on the edge because we might die tomorrow.
Jobs gives it a very different message; one that is more meaningful,
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Don’t Live Someone Else’s Life
Although Jobs is speaking with the weight of that cancer diagnosis — even though he believed himself to be in remission, we all have a limited time.
What’s the point of following someone else’s ambitions? If you don’t listen to your own intuition, if you don’t follow your own hopes and dreams, then will you look back with regret?
Whatever your dreams — even if they don’t involve doing ‘big work’, even if they feel like the ‘small work’ of raising a family, live your own life.
When it comes time to make a decision between your great idea and someone else’s, then back yourself, because no one else will.
Life lessons: don’t waste your life living someone else’s. Back yourself and stand firm in the power you have to be you.
5. The Most Powerful Person Is The Storyteller
The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.
On Quora, Tomas Higbey tells a story of a conversation held in the break room at NeXT in the summer of 1994 between himself and Jobs. Jobs shared with the room that he believed the storyteller was the most powerful person in the world, because he (or she) set the vision and values for the following generation.
Jobs encapsulated this idea perfectly in his Commencement address, which he begins by stating that he wants to share three stories with the graduates:
No big deal. Just three stories.
With three simple stories, he conveys life lessons to all those present. He does indeed set the vision, values, and agenda of the entire generation to come.
That is the power of storytelling, and it’s one we should all strive to embrace.
Stories aren’t ‘just’ for entertainment; their role is to teach us something valuable, to make information more accessible and digestible, and to convey something significant to people who, without a storyteller, wouldn’t be open, or able, to listen.
Next time you have something you want to share, whether it’s writing or a discussion with your children, ask yourself how you can craft it into a story – or relate it to a personal experience – so you can make the biggest impact possible.
Life lessons: storytelling is a gift and a skill you can nurture and grow. Storytelling is how you will make a bigger impact.
And Your Legacy…?
The Commencement speech is all the more poignant looking back. Jobs had faced the cancer diagnosis two years earlier — and presumably knew that the odds were against him. And, looking back, since his death in 2011, the world has certainly changed.
The lessons we can take from his impassioned speech from more than a decade ago still resonate today. His legacy lives on.
It’s not about the products he helped create — Apple may change and its popularity may wane, but I think a speech like this will continue to inspire generations to come.
We can’t connect the dots looking forward, we can only do what we think is right and true, we can only live our own lives, do what inspires us, and hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll touch someone else with our dreams.
With all the noise of the day to day, I think it helps to pause from time to time, and ask ourselves that simple question.
Am I doing what is right and true?
Do you know anyone who hasn’t heard Steve Jobs inspirational speech? We’d love you to share this with them…