It’s commencement speech season in the United States, which means celebrity speakers searching for wisdom to impart to graduating students.
Valiant though their attempts may be, not all commencement speeches are equal. Some will be instantly forgotten, while others will make headlines. But few can hope to achieve the status attained by Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford University in 2005.
A rare speech to transcend the genre and find its way into the cultural fabric, with almost 40 million views on YouTube it is the most watched commencement speech of all time – and not without good reason.
An icon of business and culture, the Apple co-founder was a public figure who remained enigmatic; as much of an attraction as the new products he unveiled at launch events. Jobs’ singular viewpoint, applying an aesthete’s eye to invention, was arguably the gateway to Apple’s success: it was technology made beautiful. But like Apple’s products, which concealed their inner workings behind glossy exteriors, getting to the nuts and bolts of what made Jobs tick was not always easy.
When he spoke, people listened, and rarely did Jobs share himself so nakedly as he did with graduates on that June day in California.
‘The closest I’ve been to facing death’
Jobs’ speech followed three stories from his life: one, in which he tells an anecdote about dropping out of college; another, about the lessons he learned from being fired by Apple in 1985; and lastly, his reflections on death.
If the first two stories could be reduced to the need to trust your gut and find what you love, the third was more profound. In 2005, Jobs’ first bout of cancer was in the rearview mirror after successful surgery. “This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades,” he said. The incident had brought his mortality into sharper focus, and in his speech he shared the virtues of death, going as far as to describe it as “very likely the single best invention of life.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,” he told graduates.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
He wasn’t a tech billionaire that day; simply someone who’d felt death’s grip and shaken free for a second act, talking to people about to embark on their first.
“It was almost like he was giving advice to the next generation of entrepreneurs,” says Carmine Gallo, a communication coach and author.
Jobs never did get those additional decades, dying of cancer in 2011 at the age of 56. “(His death) cemented that speech in everyone’s mind,” says Gallo.
A fitting tribute
Last month, Jobs’ widow, businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs, delivered a commencement speech to students at the University of Pennsylvania. She recalled the memory of her late husband and his 2005 speech, providing an addendum for those in attendance.
“One of life’s most beautiful dimensions is integrating those you’ve loved and lost into your own being. We see more – and we understand more – and we love more,” she said.
“Steve used to say: ‘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. If you haven’t found it yet – keep looking.’
“Let his words guide you as they’ve guided me. The only way to do great work, is to love what you do. And while you’re doing it … love who you do it for – and love who you are while you do it.”
Powell Jobs knew how much the Stanford speech meant to her late husband. The morning of its delivery, “I’d almost never seen him more nervous,” she told the authors of 2015 book “Becoming Steve Jobs.”
Invoking the speech was a timely reminder of its potency, as well as a fitting tribute to the man behind it, who, as he revealed that day, wasn’t so different from the rest of us after all.