Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish: Lessons in Happiness from Steve Jobs

Delivering the 2005 commencement for Stanford

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite motivational speeches. In 2005, Steve Jobs, the CEO and founder of Apple and Pixar delivered the commencement speech to Stanford University. Steve spoke about 3 different topics, dividing them and adding personal anecdotes to reinforce his point in each area. Those topics were as follows: connecting the dots, love and loss, and death. 

The reason I have chosen to write about this is because it seemed to me like Steve was laying out a roadmap to happiness. In my most recent post I discussed the importance of listening to our elders: they have lived the longest and as such I believe they may know best about how to deal with the rollercoaster that is life, and ought to be given a great deal of respect. At the time of this speech, Steve was only 50, but he had already dealt with a tremendous number of ups and downs, and unbeknownst any of us, was only 6 years away from his own death at this time. 

The first part of Steve’s speech was about connecting the dots. He describes how he dropped out of college because he had no idea why he was there, what he would get out of graduating, and because he felt tremendous guilt that he was draining the bank accounts of his parents. Instead of calling himself a failure for this, he took the opportunity, now that he was unburdened with the need to seek a diploma, to take the classes that truly interested him. He dropped in on a calligraphy class, something that he found fascinating, and was perhaps for the first time actually interested in a university class. Nobody, not even Steve, would have known then, but 10 years later Steve applied that knowledge into Apple’s Mac computer, giving it some of the most beautiful type-face options and overall quality user-experiences that have now become associated with the company he helped found. 

The moral of the story, according to Steve, was his willingness to follow his heart. In his own words: “trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma whatever. Believing the dots will connect down the line will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path.” His words here echo some of my favorite thoughts of happiness. He mentions trust, understanding that some things are out of our control, but choosing to go along happily and enjoy the journey, making the most out of it, as the stoics would. He also talks about following your heart, reminding me of Paulo Coelho and the alchemist with the soul of the universe. When seeking happiness, follow your heart, it knows best.

The Jobs Family

The second topic that Steve Jobs mentioned was love and loss. After an initial rise to meteoric success, he was soon fired by the board of Apple, the company that he had founded and built from the ground up. He could have moped in pity and despair, something that he apparently did feel like doing at times. Instead, he chose to see the positive, and realize that now that he was no longer encumbered by having to answer to a board, or share-holders, he could chase what made him happy, which was creating. Thus, he went on to found several companies, including Pixar, the most successful animation studio in the world. He also was able to pursue love, and met his wife Laurene, with whom he started a family, and lived happily together with until his death in 2011. The point of the story is this, Steve chose to make the most of his situation, realizing that events are neither good nor bad, they simply are. He could have chosen despair, and instead chose happiness, chasing those ideas which made him happy: his creativity and his family. On love he said this: “you’ll know when you find it. Keep looking. Don’t settle.” I second that, don’t settle when it comes to finding what makes you happy. It was at this part of the speech where he said the lines that would resonate the most with me, he describes waking up and asking himself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today. Whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know it is time to make a change.” If you aren’t happy about the way you are about to spend your day, why are you spending It that way?

The final topic of the commencement speech was death. Steve was speaking about this at a perfect time in his own life, having only 1 year earlier having a near death experience with pancreatic cancer. His doctors discovered a tumor on his pancreas and gave him only several months to live. As it turned out, the cancer was a very rare type, and was able to be operated upon, saving Steve’s life. He described how the brush with death gave him a new-found appreciation for life, being reminded how easily and suddenly it can be taken away. He described his experience with nearly dying as a great reminder to stay humble but to also live life to the fullest. Death is inescapable and inevitable and may very well be the only chance at existence that any of us get. Ergo, we ought to make the most of it. Knowing we will soon be gone should serve as a great reminder to follow our heart and do what makes us happy. It will all be over too soon to do anything else. 

Doing one of the things that made him happy: creating

One need not have a near death experience like pancreatic cancer to help us appreciate life. In reality, we are all near death in a sense. The length of a human life is but a brief moment in time on the cosmic scale. Maybe that is depressing but I think it is beautiful. It adds meaning and importance to the time we have, urging that we remember the words of our contemporaries, like Steve Jobs, and knowing that our time here will soon be at an end. A reminder to fill it with positivity for ourselves and those around us, choosing and chasing happiness. 

I will leave you with the same words with which Steve Jobs concluded the 2005 Stanford University Commencement speech, hoping that you will hear the words and remember them as a guidance to follow your heart, chase your passions, and love deeply: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

Click here to view the full speech:

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