Why Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Speech Is Still Relevant

Fearless entrepreneur. Genius marketer. Visionary inventor. These are some of the words that have been used to describe Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc. Nearly four years after his death, Jobs is still a powerful icon and an inspiration to professionals who seek to embark on entrepreneurial and non-traditional career paths.

The commencement speech Jobs delivered to Stanford University’s graduating class of 2005 has been analyzed, replayed (the video has over 21 million YouTube views and counting), and revered for its sage-like wisdom and widespread application to all areas of life. Here are a few reasons why Jobs’ strongest message, “find what you love,” is still relevant for professionals and business owners today.

Trust Your Instincts and Intuition

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. 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.”

At the beginning of his commencement address, Jobs’ jokingly quipped that it was the closest he had ever come to a college graduation. The audience eventually heard about Jobs’ story of dropping out of Reed College a mere six months after enrolling. His choice to audit classes that actually interested him instead of attending classes required for his major proved to reap benefits in unexpected ways later in his professional career. One poignant example is the calligraphy class he audited at Reed College, a course that later influenced the typefaces that have become a signature strength of Macintosh computers.

Jobs’ story to Stanford students about “connecting the dots” is a powerful reminder to trust your instincts and intuition, even when your immediate decision seems illogical, unconventional, or too wayward from the prescribed path laid out by those before you. Besides the extraordinary business people and celebrities who found success without a college degree, there are countless examples of ordinary individuals who paved their own unconventional roads to entrepreneurial success despite the obstacles they faced along the way.

Embrace Success and Failure Equally

Let’s face it. Even though we’re told the best lessons in life come from our mistakes, no one likes to fail. Some of us absolutely dread it, allowing it to hamper our ability to take risks. In his Stanford speech, Jobs confessed that failure is exactly what drove him to create the computer company NeXT, as well as the beloved computer animation studio, Pixar. Relating the story about his public firing from Apple at the young age of 30, Jobs admits:

“What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me.”

However, Jobs revealed that what originally seemed to be a crushing sense of rejection and loss, quickly turned into a period of personal acceptance, opportunity and ingenuity. Being freed from his position as CEO of Apple allowed Jobs to explore creative outlets that would eventually usher his return to Apple.

Resilience is a key trait that helps entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals weather the turbulence of business ownership. Despite the uncertainty that many new entrepreneurs face, more 9-to-5 workers are deciding to take the leap into entrepreneurship despite the volatility of running a company. And while some researchers posit that people leave full-time jobs to start companies more out of a need to create mobility and financial opportunities rather than to achieve independence, others might argue that budding entrepreneurs are indeed capitalizing on lifelong and newly discovered passions.

Work-life balance, social responsibility, autonomy… the list of reasons to pursue business ownership are numerous. But like Jobs, successful entrepreneurs point out that it’s loving what you do that will keep you motivated through thick and thin, as well as help you discover hidden opportunities during the lowest and most challenging periods.

Find Your Passion (And Don’t Give Up)

“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.”

But, what if you have no idea what that passion is? Especially something that will sustain you through job failures and business flops? The uncertainty of finding what we love to do—whether in work, relationships, or life in general—drives many to settle for the expected and familiar.

Yet, like Jobs’ reminder to Stanford graduates, work occupies a huge part of our lives. Finding what you love to do can have a significant impact on both job satisfaction and mental and physical health. It’s no secret that many people in today’s modern society are unhappy with their jobs. In fact, a recent Gallup poll says that unhappy workers outnumber their happier, more satisfied counterparts by 2 to 1. Studies continually show that burnout at work due to exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, and cynicism creates a host of problems that extend well beyond the office. These include decreased job performance, deterioration of cognitive abilities, and increased risk of health problems like digestive issues and heart disease.

So while finding your passion may not happen overnight, consider experimenting with hobbies and pursuing personal interests that help guide you towards topics and industries that excite you most. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking,” Jobs said. “Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

Live Today Like it’s Your Last

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Stopping to evaluate the quality of our lives can be a confusing, frustrating, and sometimes even painful process. In spite of the pain, it’s worth checking in periodically to determine if your life’s work, and personal and professional relationships, are contributing to or detracting from the value you seek to give to yourself and others. 

Though Jobs passed away just six years after delivering his now famous Stanford commencement speech, his timeless advice still resonates with people of all ages and backgrounds. Death, no matter how morbid the idea may seem, is a destination we all share. As Jobs highlights, it’s advantageous to find meaning and purpose during the time you do have; whether it’s climbing the corporate ladder, giving back to society, or finding the courage to start the business you have always dreamed of creating. 

“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 of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked, there is no reason not to follow your heart.”

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