The Contradiction in Steve Jobs’ Famous Commencement Speech

In Steve Jobs' famous commencement speech at Stanford he said:

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. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

Pretty standard advice: figure out what you love and then go do it.

Yet, earlier in the same speech, he talks about how he happened to go to Reed College and happened to take a calligraphy class and then happened to put his honed design eye to work when designing the Mac computer. In hindsight it fits together but as a college student he had no idea where it would lead. He says you can "only connect the dots looking backwards" — you have to live life and then find the connective meaning later.

So which is it? Should you live and do whatever is immediately available and then connect the dots looking backwards to create a personal narrative? Or should you focus out-of-the-gate on finding that golden thing that you love?

Does Jobs now love what he does? Yes. Was he telling himself at age 22 that he should focus on doing something he loves? No. Does Jobs love what he does because he's really, really good at it? Probably. Should his advice to young people be instead "get really, really good at something"? Maybe.

Bottom Line: Even though Steve Jobs' own life is a testament to randomness and stumbling upon a line of work around which he developed strong competence and then developed passion for it, to young people he puts the passion imperative first: "Go find out what you love to do and then do it."

(Thanks to Cal Newport for his on-going inspiration on this topic)

19 Responses to The Contradiction in Steve Jobs’ Famous Commencement Speech

  1. Ben — I’ve been thinking about this a lot myself. I just wrote a post called “Don’t just pursue your passion” that speaks to some of this. Here it is:

    link to blog.rafaelcorrales.com

    I think we agree that you shouldn’t solely pursue your #1 passion and that sometimes your passions change. It’s probably more effective to work towards finding the combination of your talents and passion.

  2. Brian says:

    It was a good speech, but the part that really annoyed me was when he said “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” and if the answer was no you should make a change.

    Is this really a good metric to use? Would he really want to spend the last day of his life going over the Ipad’s roll-out strategy? Maybe…but if so he is an idiot. I have heard this trite advice so many times it just irritates me. What you would choose to do on the last days of your life would naturally be different than your day to day job. This level of passion for work would be absurd and anyone who uses this as a benchmark is setting themselves up for failure.

  3. Arati Rana says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    I’d like to argue that on the contrary being good is boring. Growth is what is important to enjoyment. So is focus.

    Are you suggesting that people should pursue a career in whatever they are best at right now? And how do you define being good at something? Is it a label we ourselves get to choose or that others choose for us? Sometimes outside validation and confidence help fight the negative mental chatter that prevents focus or flow, but often kudos (inner or outer) aren’t enough to go on when faced with eight hours of work. A more powerful reason to base a career choice on is importance—however one defines it (and the definition of important work may very well be work that is appreciated).

    One can grow and flow by doing most things with the right attitude. However, only important work is going to make someone want to get back to it again and again and become a career.

  4. Janet says:

    Indeed, I used to think like that too: “find your passion and you’ll have a dream job and thus find happiness.” However, what happened to Steve Jobs was randomness. In reality and for most people, I think one should follow your statement of “develop[ing] strong competence and then develop[ing] passion.” Cheers!

  5. Viktor says:

    Ben, I personally think that what Steve Jobs means is that you should go with the flow and do what you love at each period/moment of your life, like when he left his college program to take calligraphy classes, something he loved.

    Then, when you combine the patchwork or dots of experiences with passion you get closer and closer to fulfilling yourself and happiness.

    It sounds spiritual but I believe that following what you love to do is following “your path”, the personal mission you have on earth. Each individual feeling of passion is like the sign-posts which guide you to happiness…

    In regards to “what to do if this were the last day”, in my opinion, this shouldn’t be taken literally, it is a rather general attitude to life, to free yourself from all kinds of social pressures and enslaving to the future. In this context, I often see people who are enslaved to their resume (“I would love to do this and this, but it wouldn’t look good on my resume”). Definitely a happiness killer (and success killer!!)

    To combine these two subjects, I believe that if you follow Steve Jobs’ philosphy and do what you love at the moment, you can trust life that your future will be fine. And you are free like bird! a happy bird!

    Regards from Spain,

    Viktor

    Ps: Yesterday I survived a major car accident with 24 cars involved. It made me rethink again! Appreciate your life everyday!

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    " One can grow and flow by doing most things with the right attitude" — I
    disagree. Competence can be measured objectively. A good attitude is not
    enough.

  7. Arati Rana says:

    Thanks for replying. This has been exciting—my first conversation in the blogosphere.

    I wasn’t talking about competence in the sentence you pulled out. I was talking about attitude in relation to the possibility of growth and focus. When one’s determined to learn, there are lessons everywhere, even if they are “only” in the art of concentrating. Focus is meditative and therefore enjoyable. I’m thinking of the Zen attitude of taking every task as a meditation.

  8. Sarah says:

    Hiya! Interesting post but I don’t see the contradiction. Why can’t you do both? Why can’t you seek out something you love, by trying lots of other things out, and then connect the dots when you’ve found your passion?

    Some people know from the get-go what they love, others (myself included) are pretty clueless. I don’t think that you can find out what it is that you love to do without trying out a lot of stuff first, as you won’t know if you love something until you’ve tried it. You can’t just take a guess.

    I think what Jobs means is that you should try different things until you find something that you love and then pursue that. The dots of all the things that you’ve tried will then make sense.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    I agree with your last paragraph, but Jobs is not explicit about that. He
    does not specify how the "search for what you love" should proceed.

  10. Cal says:

    Further supporting Ben’s skepticism is the reality that Steve Jobs didn’t start Apple out of a spiritual “love” — he saw a way to make a buck, and was tenacious at it.

    More important was the fact that once the scheme took off, he pushed it, to the best of his ability, into directions that were important for him.

    I’m wondering if a better paraphrasing of his story is: “Own what you do so you can transform it into something you love.”

  11. “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”

    How often do you hear exhortations like that at a commencement speech?

    Talking about death at a commencement speech to bright-eyed young people is spitting with gusto right in the eye of The System.

    Still a renegade.

    Finding out what you love to do may be a random and stumbling process for many people, but Steve Jobs at age twenty-two was already focusing with laser-like intensity on making money in computers.

    “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

    I think Steve Jobs’ real genius is his intuitive understanding of the workings of the human psyche– slick Apple design and merchandising magic don’t come about by chance.

  12. Robin Hanson says:

    A great post! :) It may be that the real secret is to be the sort of person who can genuinely love whatever it is that you seem to be good at.

  13. Michael says:

    Brian- Jobs said that if the answer was no too many days in a row, then things needed addressing. He was not talking about needing the answer to be yes everyday.
    I agree with you, a standard that says you should feel that way everyday is an absurd metric, but that is not the metric Jobs was using.

  14. Karl says:

    Well said Cal, you have a gift for articulating these kind of concepts.

  15. I believe that along the way ‘connecting the dots’ means looking at how things come to be in your life; be it coincidences, fate, chance, etc. events occur in life that bring us to where we need to be. As for passion, that evolves with time, the better one performs a task or does something, the more confident they become in their ability, and the more passionate, and confident, they become about their role.

  16. Kate says:

    Perhaps the big trick is to pursue passions – plural – and things that interest you. Jobs took a calligraphy which held some interest for him, and then used that with what became his biggest passion. Also, as Rafael said in his linked post, there has to be some alignment between your passion and your ability/talent. Perhaps most vital to success would be to determine what’s really going to be important to you and what is “successful” going to look like – an image that might need modification as time passes.

    Myself – I was a top student who was accepted into medical school out of high school. I worked hard – because I was passionate about what I did – but then near the end of my MD discovered it wasn’t the medicine I loved but the learning. So my life took a turn and my prospects took a nose dive – I went from a potential top income of 7 figures to becoming a public school teacher, where if I stay in the classroom my top earnings will be 50K. Woo hoo – so much for my mansion. But I realigned my vision of success with my passion for what I do, and I’m truly happy. So maybe it’s as much about doing what you love as it is about loving life and knowing what type of “success” will make you happy as a person. And to some of the disbelievers, it is possible to really love your job – if I found out I was dying I would probably beg some money off of family and friends to visit my birthplace in Europe one last time – but then I would return to the classroom until my body gave out beneath me. I truly love my job – its a passion and a hobby and my job – but it isn’t my whole life.

  17. No offense, Ben, but I totally disagree with you there.

    Sure, you should gather competencies, but you should first find what you love, and competencies come later.

    Otherwise the happiest people alive would be doctors or rocket scientists. But some of the happiest people alive didn’t make it through high school.

    In the world of today, you can find a passion, use a job to get some money, and then invest that money to learn something worthwhile.

    Half of the people on the fact of this earth that reached massive success or are millionaires did not develop competencies first.

    If you have just competencies, you have no idea where to go from there. If you have love, you can get any competency and do what you love.

    I’ve had to learn many things in my life, from studying, company creation, to health and dieting, to exercise, to computer programming, and there’s one thing I know: When I love something, I can get competencies fast. When I have competencies with no use for them, I don’t even use them.

  18. Office Space says:

    It’s a great thought, creates motivation and desire to move forward. I totally agree with what he says.

  19. Shavi says:

    Following your passion would only lead you to the place where you want to get.Most of the people live just to live but passionate people live their dreams. People who are passionate about their work are only going to change the world.

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