Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech means a lot to me. I’ve been told numerous times to listen to this particular speech but kept putting it off because I was sure it would be something along the clichéd lines of “Follow your dreams,” “Never give up no matter what,” “Work hard so you can one day be as successful as me,” etc.
I didn’t want to be preached to, especially not from someone like Jobs who I saw in my mind as a “perfect” being, someone who had accomplished so much and who appeared to have everything he ever wanted. I couldn’t possibly imagine what he would have to talk about that would relate to someone like me, a student at Cornell University in the undergraduate business program with one more year left to go.
But a terribly strange thing happened. His speech had a huge influence on me and completely changed how I viewed my post-graduation plans. The three stories he told about his own life and his basic theme of “Following your dreams even when it leads you off the well-worn path … [b/c] that will make all the difference” made me sit up and take notice.
First, his philosophy about death made me realize how short our lives really are. It made me realize just how important it was that I do something meaningful and important to me right out of graduation, not “right after I make bank working on Wall Street,” not “right after I do something I hate and don’t see the point in but where I’ll make lots of money and can retire early.” Because what if I get hit by a bus the day after I’ve spent thirty years slaving away and am finally about to “retire with a ton of money?” What if I wake up one day at forty-five years old and realize that I will never move beyond middle management at the major, well-established corporation that I’ve spent my entire life at just because it was a “stable and well-respected” job? What if I lose hope that I can actually make a difference in the world? That last one scares me more than anything else, being “normal” and settling for a life of mediocrity. Needless to say, I’ve been inspired to take more risk in my life, to do things that aren’t in the handbook on “how to succeed.” I personally believe that living life in this manner, in actively trying to pursue your own dream even when you don’t have a clear roadmap, is better than settling and letting life pass you by.
Second, the part about doing what you love resonated with me because I spent all four years of high school studying all the time and missing out on a lot of opportunities due to the environment I was in. I went to a high school that didn’t encourage students to do what we loved, but to follow a set path that would be sure to lead to our success. This “path” meant taking as many Advanced Placement exams as possible, shooting for a high GPA, and doing well on the SATs. It meant choosing whichever college was highest-ranked on the annual US News and World Report list. Never once was I asked what it was that I wanted to do, what I was interested in. It didn’t help that my parents kept telling me I was going to be a doctor, something I had zero interest in. It also didn’t help that my peers and I were virtually indistinguishable on paper because we all did the same things during high school (we were on that “path to success,” remember?) I was very frustrated and unhappy for a long period of time. I thought something had to be wrong with me somehow. Everyone else seemed to be doing just fine. When it came time to choose colleges, I wanted to run as far away from California (where I grew up) as I could. I was rather convinced that if I went to UCLA, I would have lost my mind.
Going to Cornell was probably the first best decision I ever made in my life. (Deciding that medicine wasn’t for me after the second week as a pre-med was the second). Over my past three years at Cornell, the people I met, the classes I took, the internships I had, and the opportunities I grasped onto changed me completely. Leaving home and doing something “new” was a true rebirth. The total 180 I did has inspired me to pursue life and what I’m interested in with full force. It relates to what Jobs said about doing what you love, “… 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, and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it …”
At this point in my life, I don’t know exactly what I will be doing after graduating next May. But something Jobs said stood out to me, “Your heart and intuition somehow already know what you truly want to become.” I think that’s incredibly beautiful—the fact that, somehow, it is already known how our paths will be laid out. No matter how difficult we think life may be, everything will inevitably work out the way it is supposed to. It gives me faith in my own future and the courage to do what I believe in.
I’ve probably listened to Jobs’ speech about 100 times by now (sometimes twice in a row). It inspires me to be a better person each time. The ironic thing about this is that Jobs wanted to pull out of speaking at Stanford several days before the commencement. He was apparently too nervous and didn’t think he wrote a good enough speech for the graduates. I’m so glad he decided to speak after all (or should I perhaps be thanking Stanford for forcing him to stick by his word) because I truly believe his words struck a nerve within the graduates. It certainly did for me.