Life as an Extreme Sport

Response: Was Jobs’ Advice Banal? No.

This morning, flipping through Twitter, I saw that Tauriq Moosa had linked to a Big Think article by Will Wilkinson on Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech, written shortly after Jobs died, questioning whether or not Jobs’ advice was good advice. Moosa’s tweet called it “banal”, and the post itself calls it banal status-signaling, and then explains why.

If you haven’t read Jobs’ commencement speech, go ahead; you’ll need the context for the rest of this. (You’ll probably want to read Wilkinson’s blog post, too.) Done? Okay.

So, Wilkinson is wrong, in that he misses Jobs’ point through misreading the point. Basically, Wilkinson appears to be saying that the advice to always pursue what you love, and to never settle, will lead to a nation of people constantly quitting their jobs to pursue fanciful dreams of art. He illustrates this using the ever-popular “art major in college” argument favoured by parents across the world, and equates never settling to poverty and suffering (frustration).

That last bit alone should tip you off to not understanding what Jobs said – as a Buddhist, Jobs would have never advocated people pursue a path that would cause their suffering. In fact, you really do have to read the speech with that in the background, because what he is saying is to avoid suffering, and that’s how you’ll lead a fulfilling life.

The Stanford speech has three parts to it: connect the dots, love and loss, and death. Let’s take a closer look, keeping in mind Wilkinson’s overall argument of banal never-settling.

Speech part the first: connecting the dots. Here Jobs tells about dropping out of Reed College, and dropping in to the classes that interest him, rather than the classes he must take. Now, it’s entirely possible that I am partial to this because of my own educational background: I chaffed quite a bit at required courses that didn’t interest me, which is one reason it took me a while to finish college; I had to find the place that would let me study what did interest me, rather than what they thought would make me a a well-rounded person. But Jobs is talking about more than just college, here. In fact, he’s retelling a rather famous Buddhist story that goes something like this:

A monk in San Francisco decides he wants to visit friends in Portland, and thinks that it’s a beautiful time of year to sail up the coast. So he borrows another friend’s boat at sets off north. About halfway to Portland, though, he changes his mind – the boat is large enough, and well-stocked, and he’s always wanted to see Hawaii. So he changes direction, and spends his time sailing to Hawaii, enjoying the sea life playing in the water around him.

Well, about a third of the way to Hawaii, he realizes that no, really, he’d love to go to Seattle, a place he’s never been. So the monk cheerfully resets his sails and heads north to Seattle. The whales are migrating at this point, and he spends long days watching them surface and play near his boat.

Somewhere near Neah Bay, the whales split off and he realizes that no, actually, his original idea to see his friends in Portland was the best idea. So he turns around and heads south, and a few days later pulls up at their dock just outside of Portland.

His friends are there waiting for him, and they ask him where he’s been – did he get lost? “No,” he replies. “I always knew where I was going- I just wasn’t sure where I would end up!”

Now, the point of this is relatively simple: paths are rarely straight lines, and if you get so stuck on that straight line, you miss out on a lot of things, and those things might be relevant, important, or even necessary some time down the line.

You can’t look in the future and know where you’re going to end up; all you can do is know where you’re going in the now and then look back and hope it all knits together. Sometimes, that knitting won’t happen for years, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is what Jobs was saying: there’s value in chasing the things that interest you in the “now.” Not every graduate at that lecture had to go out and take a job at a top investment firm and immediately chase the money; they could, to use a banal and overused phrase, stop and smell the roses – perhaps then starting off on a lifetime of botany, of hobby gardening, of, in 15 years, being in the right place at the right time to pull their professional life and hobby together into one thing that they love.

Which dovetails in to his second point, about love and loss, and how sometimes you have to lose what you love to reinvent yourself into something more than it. Again, it’s something I relate to: in 2001, I had to decide if I was going to continue in an industry that paid me a healthy six-figures, or if I was going to do something else. I really loved the lifestyle my income allowed me; travel, good food, wines, and all the things that you’re told you should constantly strive for in American society. What didn’t I love? Well, my job, I suppose. I got a strong sense of satisfaction from a lot of what I did, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about. (Rather, I was passionate about doing my best, which is actually a very different concept, although it can be hard to separate out.)

I opted to do something else; I went back to school, got a degree in something that is considered “utterly useless” by most, did grad school for a while, and am continuing to see where things lead me. Sure, I’ve given up nearly a decade, now, of making six-figures each year, and it’s definitely been hard – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do. (And as a matter of fact, all of those experiences, from computers to college and beyond, have tied together into my current job, something I do enjoy doing that I wouldn’t have been able to without those diverse and divergent experiences creating who I am now.)

And those of you who know the bitter details know that I had something I love forcefully taken away from me a few years ago. I didn’t know what to do with myself for months; I felt I had let everyone down, everyone who had faith in me going off to grad school and doing all these awesome and amazing things. I had no choice but to start over – and that was the best thing for me, because it made me separate ego from self, it made me analyze what I liked, what I loved, and why. It made me re-evaluate everything, and gave me a chance to right course on things that had gotten off-course.

Good things have happened from losing what I loved (twice), and those things likely wouldn’t have happened without the loss. What’s the point of all that, what Jobs calls foul-tasting medicine, and getting hit in the head with a brick?

We can become victims of our own success, with what we love becoming buried under those trappings of success. Sometimes, it takes losing the trappings to remember the love – to be able to honestly evaluate and take stock of what it is we’re doing and whether we’re still pursuing that which we’re passionate about, rather than the enticing things that surround success.

And that actually ties in to what he is saying about death and asking whether or not, if this day were his last, would he want to be doing what he is doing. I think this is an area Wilkinson really misunderstood; Jobs is not saying “if you realize you don’t want to do what you have to do today, don’t do it.” He is saying that, if there are too many days in a row where you realize you don’t want to do what you need to do, you need to re-evaluate.

Whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Note Jobs doesn’t say how many days too many days in a row is, or even what needs to be changed – he’s not saying you have to throw out your career, change paths, do something else. You just have to figure out what’s causing the “no” and change that.

Knowing that you’re going to die – and probably sooner rather than later – is one of those things that can really burn the crap off the edges of your life. If you’ve ever known a terminally ill person, you know what I mean. Much of the practice of Buddhism is about embracing the idea that we die, and being prepared for that; it structures the faith practice, in part to make sure that we always pursue the thing we’d regret if we died before we did it.

But Jobs isn’t saying this in terms of money, or even careers – and Wilkinson appears to read it only related to that, and to also assume that no person in their right mind would want to work in waste management, or become a plumber or any of the numerous things that folks with white-collar, computer-based jobs look down on. To which I say, I think the original article Wilkinson wrote reveals more about himself than anything or anyone else – and that perhaps he should spend some time watching Dirty Jobs, to see that there are folks out there who find genuine joy and pleasure out of doing things that Wilkinson would not want to.

But see, isn’t that the point? Jobs says to ignore those people who have different opinions than your own, don’t let that noise and opinion drown out your own desires! Do you not want to go to college? Do you instead want to go into a trade school and learn to weld so that you can spend your life building massive bridges and infrastructure? Then don’t listen to people like Wilkinson who seem to tie up desire and money and status into a single concept; don’t listen to the people who would say that not being Donald Trump is settling, who would sneer at a career choice that they don’t understand.

This is what Obama is saying in his speeches about education, that everyone – all students – need to be given the opportunity to pursue, at an affordable cost, the education that they want, whether that’s at a two- or four-year college, trade school or vocational training. Not everyone has to get a four-year degree to follow what they love to do, and not everyone should be made to feel less-than for realizing that their path is not the path trod in the ground by so many people before them.

And that’s all Jobs was saying, too: identify what it is that drives you, and then set up your life so you can do it. This may mean taking a “banal” 9 to 5 job so that you can spend your evenings stargazing or writing the next great novel or painting murals on the sides of buildings; it might mean chasing your interests through college classrooms or spending your nights mucking out a sewer so your days can be spent cultivating orchids. Who knows; they’re your drives and passions, not mine.

Separate money from passion and happiness, live your day like you may not have a chance at another one, and ultimately recognize that the point isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Is that lacking in originality to the point of being boring? Is it trite and hackneyed? Ultimately, that’s for you to judge. But I’d suggest taking a look at the number of people who go through life doing what they “should,” who stop chasing dreams because “it’s not what an adult would do,” who live their lives sad and bland and without spark, all because they’ve been told they “have to” in order to be “responsible adults,” and consider which set of advice is truly banal.