7 Lessons from Steve Jobs' Commencement Speech
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Today at a Glance
- I'm a big believer in the value of re-consuming the books, ideas, and content that have deeply moved you. While the content may not change, you do, so your experience with it changes. You'll pick up new perspectives and insights each and every time.
- Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University is one such piece of content. I watch this speech at least 2x per year. With each viewing, I have new learnings and takeaways. While Steve was far from perfect (all too human, just like the rest of us), the wisdom in his words has impacted me profoundly over the years.
- This piece contains 7 lessons and quotes from a legendary commencement speech that has stood the test of time.
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I'm a big believer in the value of re-consuming the books, ideas, and content that have deeply moved you.
In recent years, it has become a socially acceptable adult flex to talk about how many books you've read in a given year. Trust me, I've done it. You can wow people at a cocktail party by rattling off facts from the 52 books you read last year.
But what I've come to realize is that reading 52 books is much less impressive than reading one book and being fundamentally changed by it.
As a rule of thumb: You may read thousands of books in your life, but there will only be a few that deeply change the way you think. The same applies to ideas and content more broadly.
With books, ideas, and content, I have found that the Pareto Principle (20% of the inputs create 80% of the impact) is inadequate.
In fact, I would argue that 1% of the consumption inputs create 99% of the impact.
When I find one of those top-1% items, I re-consume it religiously (at least once per year). While the content may not change, you do, so your experience with it changes. You'll pick up new perspectives and insights each and every time. It's a beautiful, formative thing.
In today's piece, I'd like to walk through one item on my top-1% list:
Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University.
I watch this speech at least 2x per year. With each viewing, I have new learnings and takeaways. While Steve was far from perfect (all too human, just like the rest of us), the wisdom in his words has impacted me profoundly over the years. Even if you aren't a fan of the man, I would encourage you to take in his words.
Here are 7 lessons and quotes from a legendary commencement speech that has stood the test of time...
Question the Assumptions
"I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting."
Independent thinking is a rare superpower of the modern age.
To carve your own path—in your career or life—you have to develop your own views. You can't be constrained by the way things have always been done—by the false tradeoffs or base assumptions that others have told you to believe.
Some of the worst decisions I've made in life were grounded in "that's how it has always been done" thinking.
Learn to question the basis of anything that doesn't feel right to you.
Don't chart your course through life based on someone else's map.
Question the assumptions. Develop your own views.
Let Curiosity Guide You
"And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on...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...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."
This newsletter is called the Curiosity Chronicle, so I naturally feel compelled to talk about the impact of intellectual curiosity.
Life is a mysterious expanse that we're tossed into without a flashlight or guide. We hope that our parents, family, friends, or mentors can help, but the reality is that we have to figure most of it out on our own.
Curiosity can be your guide—but only if you embrace it.
It's hard to predict, but when you pursue learning with genuine, inspired curiosity, good things tend to happen. It's a mysterious and powerful force—one you should always have on your side.
Let curiosity guide you.
Have Faith in the Dots
"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. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. 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."
The concept of "dots" has been one of the most impactful ideas in my life over the last decade.
We are just a series of "dots"—moments, decisions, successes, and failures. Our lives are the line that connects through them.
The struggle is that it's often impossible to see that line as you place new dots. The complexity of the world obscures the connections.
Much of life, therefore, requires a terrifying leap of faith. A grounded belief that those dots will connect—somehow, someway.
And yet, as terrifying as it may be, they do. Time and again.
Always, always have faith in the dots.
Go Back to the Starting Line
"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."
After being fired from Apple, Steve Jobs felt the weight of a tremendous public failure that most of us will never experience. He had been fired from the company he founded, after all.
Interestingly, the public failure led to a sort of Renaissance period in his life.
It's easy to allow the burden of external forces to drain your life. The pressures of being late in the race, with high expectations and a buildup of fatigue, bear down on you.
When you find yourself in that position, think back to how you felt as a beginner—the lightness of that moment.
Metaphorically or literally, go back to the starting line.
"You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. 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. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle."
In your career (and life), if you have the luxury of choice, never settle for less than love.
Low tolerance for uncertainty is one of the greatest drivers of settling. We are wired to fear the uncertainty—so we choose to settle to escape it.
Resist this urge and temptation: Tolerate uncertainty for a bit longer than you otherwise would.
An important note: Sometimes you have to settle short term in order to not settle long term. If you're building a skyscraper, the first step is to dig a hole and pour a rock-solid foundation. That's not sexy or fun, and it may feel like settling, but doing the dirty work early will allow you to build the stunning architectural masterpiece of your dreams later.
"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."
One year before this speech, Steve Jobs had survived a scare with pancreatic cancer. It was a visceral reminder of his mortality and the inescapability of death.
But rather than darkness, this close encounter brought light…
Life is simultaneously both very long and very short.
Many of us ignore the shortness of life: We then get caught up in the stresses and fail to recognize that our precious days are slowly fluttering away.
Our time is finite, but we often fail to recognize it until it's too late.
Remember that you must die. Memento Mori.
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish
"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...Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish."
The fight against normalcy is perhaps our most important fight in life.
Growing up, I feared being different—I desperately wanted to fit in. This desire led to bad decisions grounded in insecurity.
I only realized later: Being different is your edge—your ultimate competitive advantage. No one can compete with you, at being you.
We all need to fight back against “fitting in”—fight back against normalcy.
The world wants you to be normal and play by the rules. You have to fight—consistently and diligently—to maintain your uniqueness.
Steve Jobs recognized this as well as anyone in the world. So it was fitting that he closed with his most famous line (and the line I will leave you all with today):
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
These are 7 powerful lessons from one of the most wisdom-rich speeches of all time.
If you haven't watched the full video of the speech, carve out 15 minutes and thank me later. It will change the way you think about your career, life, relationships, and more.
The full text of the speech can be found here.
I'd love to hear from you:
- Which lesson stands out the most?
- What other lessons did you take from the speech that are missing?
Tweet at me @SahilBloom and I'll do my best to get back to everyone.
As always, until next time...stay curious, friends!