A friend just gave me a copy of the commencement address that the late, great computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs gave in June of 2005 at Stanford University. It impressed me greatly. Jobs was chosen to give this graduation speech, despite having himself dropped out of college after only six months, as he noted at the start of his talk.
Jobs was born to an unmarried college graduate student who gave him up for adoption immediately. She wanted his adoptive parents to be highly educated, but when the time came, the chosen pair preferred to have a baby girl, and Steve was given to a couple much less educated who agreed to see that he went to college, as they themselves had not.
Note the bias in his bio-mom’s evaluation of the two couples: the college-educated should have been the better parents, his biological mother thought, yet it turns out that the parents Jobs got may well have done even better. Despite their working-class income, they accepted the responsibility of saving their money so their son could go to an expensive college of his choice. They nurtured his independence, rather than stifling it.
Half a year of college convinced Steve Jobs he was wasting his parents’ hard-earned money and his own time. He quit, but stayed around the school and attended classes that were of interest to him, living hand-to-mouth with various friends.
His “lesson number one” came from the calligraphy class he audited. The English poet Keats had already summed this lesson up as “beauty is truth and truth, beauty.” In his later work with computers and with computer animation, Jobs kept the artistry of calligraphy in mind, producing attractive Apple and NeXT computers and founding the Pixar animation studio that created stunningly artful effects.
Substance trumps style, I always maintained; looks should matter much less than content. I was wrong and Jobs was right. Both count. Beauty may not be truth, but art is of real value. Throughout my life, I have underrated the importance of beauty, with one exception: at college, I fell in love with a beautiful girl, Tina Su, and I have been in love with her for fifty years, despite being separated for nearly twenty of them. True, if Tina did not have exceptional character, I probably would have come to love her less during these twenty-nine years of our marriage. That inner beauty has meant that as we have aged, our appearances have become less important to each other, and substance has prevailed.
Jobs’s “lesson two” was about love and loss. The Apple computer company that he and Steve Wozniak founded in Jobs’s parents’ garage and transformed within ten years into a $2 billion/year success surprisingly decided to replace Jobs with another leader. At 30, Steve Jobs was a has-been. Fired. “I didn’t see it then, but getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to me.” It freed him to become even more creative. He started the NeXT computer company, eventually sold to Apple, founded the revolutionary Pixar animation studio [Toy Story, etc.], then fell in love with and married his soul-mate, Laurene. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do….Don’t settle.”
“Don’t settle.” That takes courage. I settled for a career as a scientist: indoor work, fairly interesting and worthwhile, no heavy lifting, an assured upper-middle-class income. Those goals were met. No more financial worries, which had dogged my family in my youth. Success, but not outstanding success. Perhaps no other choice would have worked out better. When my first wife had an affair, however, I decided not to accept that, not to settle for being married to a rich but unfaithful spouse. I hoped that some day I might marry my first true love, Tina Su, though that seemed unlikely. In time, we did marry. It would not have happened if I had settled for an unfaithful wife or, shortly thereafter, a fiancee who was not really in love with me, nor I with her. “Don’t settle.”
The “third lesson” Jobs gave was about death: live each day as though it might be your last. One day, it will be. If you are consistently doing something not worth doing, change. “There is no reason not to follow your heart.” His talk was in June 2005, a year after he had first been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, usually a sentence of death within a few months. Further medical exploration revealed that the cancer was one that could be cured….or so they thought. Six years after this talk, Steve Jobs did die of cancer. The experts had been wrong. Yet, he likely faced the end philosophically, as he had said: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you….” Eventually, you become the old.
Death is our deadline. “Do it now,“ said billionaire Clement Stone. “Just do it!“ Nike ads have urged. English poet Andrew Marvell, in “To His Coy Mistress,” wanted haste, as well:
“Had we world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day….
A hundred years should go to praise
Two hundred to adore each breast….
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near….
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.”
Yes, “look before you leap,” but having looked, seize the day, carpe diem. We only live once…briefly.
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer, author and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, as are his co-authored memoirs The Shield of Gold and Ava Gardner‘s Daughter? His writer-coaching web site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com.