Some Wisdom from Steve Jobs

With the recent passing of Steve Jobs there has been a lot in the press about his life. He was in many ways a remarkable man. I don’t know much about him and I have no desire to deify him. But in celebrating his life one of the papers published an edited text of an address he gave at Stanford University in 2005. I found it quite inspirational with a number of sentiments that strongly resonated with me. This week I thought I might explore some of the themes in this address.

Jobs was an adopted child. His biological mother refused to sign his adoption papers until his adopting parents undertook to ensure he was sent to college. His working-class parents at great sacrifice saved to ensure that this obligation was met and after completing high school they duly, at great expense, sent him off to college at age seventeen.

But Jobs, feeling some guilt at the sacrifice that his parents were making and concerned with the irrelevance of some of his coursework, dropped out after six months. But although he dropped out of the process that would have earned him a formal qualification, eschewing his parents support and scrounging a bare living from his own devices, he continued to attend classes that interested him.

He said, “I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.” As an example, he talked about going to classes on calligraphy and being captivated by its beauty. Many years later he was compelled to incorporate in the first Macintosh computer various typefaces incorporating the qualities he had learned from calligraphy.

Jobs was no doubt far more intelligent than I am. It wasn’t till I was in my early thirties and had acquired two university degrees that I came to the same conclusion. I have often said (probably overstating the principle somewhat as I am inclined to exaggerate) that nothing that I have learnt that is valuable to me was learnt through the formal education system.

At that stage in my own life I began to read and study informally those subjects that interested me. At the same time I was greatly influenced by the work of that great proponent of adult education, Malcolm Knowles. He came to the conclusion that we learn best when there is a need to know. If the learning can help us resolve some problem, some dilemma that we are currently facing, then that learning will be well assimilated.

Most of our learning through formal education however, has us acquiring knowledge that might be useful sometime in the future. We try to learn it because we want to pass examinations and not because of any inherent interest. That is not the stuff we remember. When there is an immediate need for the knowledge we learn far better. I think the good Dr Phil told me something about this phenomenon a long while back. It seems that what we learn under stress does not stay with us. As I remember there was some research on doctors who had finished their final studies, many of whom had “crammed” to pass exams. When they sat the same exam 12 months after they only achieved something like 40% of their original results.

I have been involved in the selection of several thousand recruits in my various careers. In many of these exercises undue emphasis was placed on the academic qualifications of applicants. (This is particularly true in the university sector!)

I would give far more weight to the relevant experience of the applicants. Mind you some judgment is necessary here as well. Often those that present with ten years experience have only had one year’s experience ten times over!

Yet I know many successful people (however you would choose to define that) with scant formal qualifications.

Jobs also made this telling statement. “I was lucky I found what I loved to do early in life.”

Again he was for more prescient than I was. To be able to know where your passion is, and to find employment pursuing it, is a very great blessing indeed!

Initially I tried to be an engineer. I often say that I was not a great success at this. (I am sure I will be overwhelmed by comments of my former colleagues affirming this assessment!).Not that this is of any great concern to me.

But relatively early in my career (at age 26 to be precise) I was able to escape into management.

In my first years as an engineer I had a friend that I had studied economics with who had told me his ambition was to get into “management”. I had no idea what he was talking about!

Then, as a result of the inability to attract suitable candidates, I acquiesced to manage a power station. At first I thought this was an opportunity to prove myself as an engineer. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that what the job required was not to be a technical expert but to optimize the personal contributions of my little management team and our employees towards the purpose of our enterprise.

And just like Steve Jobs, that was where I found my passion and was able to express it in my employment opportunity. How good was that! I know that many employees are dragging themselves to work because they need to make a living. All of a sudden I had found that there was something meaningful in my work life. Without being too grandiose about it, I had an opportunity to make a difference to people.

Jobs said, “The only way to do great works is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

I have shared with you the first two themes in Jobs’ speech. At this particular time he had just gone into remission from pancreatic cancer. And therefore his final theme was about mortality.

He said, “Your time is limited. So don’t waste it by 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 other people’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition. They already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

And what a powerful notion this is! So many of us fall into ruts that others have created. We take on the opinions, the beliefs and prejudices that those who have been close to us hold. We go to our deaths as pale pretenders who have unquestionably taken on the belief systems of those whose approval we feel we need.

Jobs asks us to question our own integrity. “…for the last 33 years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I do what I am about to do today?’” How many of us could answer in the affirmative?

Reading these thoughts from Jobs, I must say that I have come to admire him not as an entrepreneur (and he was surely one of the greatest of the twentieth century) but as a prescient human being. There are surely lessons for us all in his experiences.

He spoke candidly of his first brush with cancer. He came to this conclusion, “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.”

Try as I may I can’t think of anything more profound to say. I admire Steve Jobs now for a little bit more than being the successful entrepreneur that created Apple.

7 Replies to “Some Wisdom from Steve Jobs”

  1. With my wife I watched a documentary on the TV some time back about the birth of the technical mega-companies (Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Sun). I was fascinated by the learning process and the insights that the founders of these companies had. I was also fascinated by the way the established giants of the day (IBM etc) did not even recognise the threat and virtually gave away priceless intellectual property to the wiz kids of the day. My wife does not find this type of show nearly so interesting but she put up with me controlling the remote on this particular night and surprised me by saying “I wish I had their passion”. She was dead right they all had that one thing in common. The reason the show was so compelling was their passion and enthusiasm was infectious. The other people that seem to breath this passion are charity workers or missionaries. When your work is your passion getting up in the morning is easy. I get a lot of pleasure from my work but I can’t say that I have ever really had this level of passion. Can’t remember the author, may have been Seligman, who told a story of a hospital orderly who had great passion for his work. He was a cleaner and general all purpose helper but he viewed his job as assisting patients to get better faster and he took it very seriously. Just goes to show you don’t have to be an entrepreneur, or a missionary to be passionate about your work.

  2. I would just like to say that I always enjoy and benefit from reading your blogs Ted, but this is one of the finest and most inspiring. Samuel Johnson, famous for his statement regarding his imminent death on the gallows and his observation that it “powerfully concentrates the mind” also wrote to a friend, “That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner.”

    ‘Remembering it sooner’ also allows the mind to think more expansively and intuitively about a larger picture of life that goes beyond the classic (and absurd) dictionary definition of life as “self animating matter”! Still, even though he regretted not having though of it earlier, Samuel Johnson certainly had such an expanded understanding, such that would allow him to stare mortality in the face and find an inner peace above it all.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking blogs. Keep them coming.

  3. I find it so enjoyable to be in a situation where one can write one’s own obituary. Everybody else can go to Hertfield, Hereford and Hampshire. RIP Jobs.

  4. Nice work Ted. A lovely, thought-provoking read again.

    I have often read about Steve Jobs’ incredible drive. Apparently there was a delay in release of one of the ipods because he was not happy with a flimsy button or headphone jack or something. I am sure it was due out the next day, and it had to be re-designed and re-manufactured before he would let it out. He was famously demanding of himself and others. I think we all need some drive toward perfection to be good at what we do.


  5. It also helps if you are the absolute dictator. You tend to find that any organisation capable of clear decisive actions has a leader who answers to no one, knows what they want and insist on getting it. If my memory serves me correctly Jobs was ousted by his board at some stage because he would not play the power games that are so typical. It was soon after that Apple declined and looked almost like it was going under. In desperation he was brought back on his own terms (total control again) and soon after the Ipod was released and everything else is history. It will be interesting to see what happens to Apple now. If I was a shareholder I’d be very nervous.

  6. Thank you all for your comments.

    I suppose I had only been aware of Jobs the entrepeneur. Whilst that in itself is an uncommon talent (as I am finding with two of the organisations I am working with seeking to take good ideas to commercialisation)and as Greg has pointed out something that would have set him apart and assured his fame, I was more impressed by his insights into humanity. As Phil has intimated, sooner or later we need to be reconciled with our mortality and his remarks on this I found very helpful.

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