In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a moving and impassioned commencement speech to Stanford’s undergraduate class.
Find out why his words still matter a decade later.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated with the latest research and information.
It’s the time of year when college graduates around the country sit in uncomfortable chairs in rented gowns and suffer through interminable commencement speeches in order to get that piece of parchment that signifies adulthood.
An endless parade of school officials will lavish praise on the graduating seniors and their future prospects in order to justify the enormous amount of money that they and their parents have spent to get to this graduation day.
At some point in the self-congratulation fest, a celebrity, politician, or alumnus takes the stage to make a commencement speech about “changing the world” and “following your passions.”
Except that you can tell when the graduation speaker has actually followed that advice.
I’ve sat through a half-dozen graduation ceremonies, and it’s easy to tell when the graduation speaker is just saying what they think they’re supposed to be saying but hasn’t lived it in his or her own life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the commencement address to end all commencement addresses.
Steve Jobs Was Right
Universities across the country would be wise to save the hefty engagement fees for celebrity speakers and just put up a large screen at the graduation ceremony.
On that large screen, they should project the instantly legendary Steve Jobs commencement address he gave to the Stanford class of 2005.
Take 15 minutes to watch this powerful commencement address if you haven’t already:
Let’s deep dive into some key takeaways from the Steve Jobs commencement speech:
1. Connecting the Dots
Steve Jobs relates his story about dropping out of Reed College. Freed from the requirements of a major, Jobs started dropping in on calligraphy classes, where he developed an appreciation for different typefaces.
Years later, he insisted the Mac have a variety of beautiful fonts and the rest is history:
Again, 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.
Living an agile life often looks like a disorganized, wandering path to the outsider. An agile person might be a management consultant in the daytime and a graphic designer at night. They might hold themselves out as a “slasher,” a person who is a programmer/writer/designer/consultant.
Implicitly, agile folks understand that great breakthroughs in creativity come from the purposeful and accidental borrowing, repurposing, and remixing of ideas from one field into another.
The agile person has to trust that the dots will connect in the future. Like Steve Jobs, you won’t know ahead of time which experiences will matter the most. But trust that they will and cast a wide net.
2. Doing Work That You Love
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. 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.
We know that burnout symptoms sneak up on you over time. And chronic burnout syndrome leaves you no time or energy to pursue your passions. Yet we stay in our unfulfilling 9 to 5 jobs when we know this path will only lead to a midlife crisis down the road.
The Steve Jobs commencement address is an urgent call for us to stop settling in our lives and careers.
If you’re already out in the workforce, it’s time to get serious about finding your Hedgehog.
If you’re just starting out, now’s the time to find out what really moves you.
3. Following Your Heart When the Herd Pulls You in a Different Direction
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.
The power of conformity is incredible. It can get you to do things you would never do otherwise. One of them is shirking your dreams and aspirations because of what other people think success looks like.
The agile person doesn’t fall into this trap–no one has all the answers and no plan, no matter how intricate, survives contact with reality.
Dogma is an opinion that many people buy into. But it’s still just an opinion. You don’t need to follow the Herd when the Herd’s heading off a cliff.
4. Remembering That You Are Going to Die
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.
Whether it’s correcting life-draining spending habits or investing in yourself over investing in junk, remembering that you can’t take it with you is a critical part of the Steve Jobs commencement speech.
When Steve Jobs died in 2011, many commentators came back to this part of his talk. It’s the part that the self-entitled twentysomethings in the audience visibly don’t get. Many chuckle, thinking that talking about death is a joke.
But in many ways, it’s the most important part of Jobs’s speech.
Remembering that you’re going to die allows you to let go of your preconceived notions about success. It allows you to break away from the rigid plans you set for yourself. And thinking about death makes you less likely to be petty and selfish.
As entrepreneur Julien Smith at In Over Your Head reminds us, if you die with any life left in you, you’ve wasted it. Author and “accidental creative” Todd Henry makes a similar point when he exhorts us to “die empty.”
Embrace change, do great work, live agile.
And go after only what is truly important.
If you know anybody who’s just graduated or is about to graduate, you might want to share this post with one of the social buttons below or with this link via Twitter. Thanks!
Image by US Mission Geneva.
A version of this article first appeared on May 21, 2012.