Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steve Jobs: Death as the Change Agent of Life

Today I read, again, Steve Jobs' commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford.  As he gives this speech, he's already been through a serious cancer scare--he had a rare, curable form of pancratic cancer--and gotten more time than he imagined. Given his resignation from Apple last week, it is clear he's going to die pretty soon. It's hard to comprehend a world without him, and it's awful to contemplate. Yet in this speech he says that death "is very likely the best invention of life." 

The prospect of it certainly spurred him on.  He decided to no longer waste time or mince words, and as a result we have things that do make our lives cooler and more joyful.  I remember the first morning when before dawn I set out for a walk with my iPod and thought, it's almost fun to be out at six in the morning.

The first time he left Apple, of course, he was pushed. He talks about how getting fired from the company he started led him to despair, followed by restlessness. So he started another technology company and, more importantly to the rest of us, Pixar. It gave us "To infinity and beyond!" and Mt. Wannahockaloggie, helping Nemo be found.  And Holly Hunter's character looking ruefully at her mirror image in Spandex, yet going out to save the day anyhow, because being a mom mattered more.  During this time Jobs got away from the office long enough to meet an extraordinary woman who became his wife and the mother of his children.  Failure is how we frame it.

My favorite story is about calligraphy.  Jobs went to Reed College, a small private institution in Portland, Oregon, for a little over a year.  He didn't want to spend any more of his working class parents' money, because he didn't know what he really wanted to do.  So he dropped out and then showed up at classes as a drop-in just because he was interested.  Everything on the campus, from drawer fronts to student council election posters, was drawn in beautiful script, and he was curious enough to go to a class:

I learned about serif and san-serif typefaces, about varying the space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.  It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

And now a three year-old can pick up an iPad and intuitively know how to use it.  Jobs calls it "connecting the dots" which he says can only be done backwards, not forwards.  As life can only be understood.  No wasted steps. 

A full text of his speech can be found here, on the Stanford website:

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