This time of year, Commencement speeches of note get bandied about the Internet through e-mail and the web. Though most of us are not graduating this month, the advice in such speeches is often relevant to almost all of us trying to graduate to something greater. The speech du jour seems to be Steve Jobs' Commencement speech at Stanford. He tells three stories in his speech, and each is better than the next. The second story offers a simple message:
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. 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.
Straightforward, though the simplicity can be lost in the real world when other factors enter the equation and muck up the mantra.
The third story is about death. It's similar to Stephen Covey's advice in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (I think; it was assigned reading one summer when I did an internship at Procter and Gamble) to imagine people speaking at your funeral and living so you could be remembered the way you wanted to be remembered, but Jobs story has a sort of Buddhist-geek-rebel spin:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, 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.
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 your are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because 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. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
It reminded me of something Jeff Bezos would say because both he and Jobs think of such ideas in a very pragmatic and analytical fashion. He and Jobs both think of and refer to concepts like Death or regret as inventions or mechanisms. Banal philosophical truisms become prescriptive with an almost quantitative persuasion in their hands, and it's always more powerful to hear such advice from true believers. They live that way not because the ideas sound good but because they really believe it's the best long-term strategy.
Bezos' version of Jobs' death concept is "regret minimization":
At the end of the day, when you're eighty years old and looking back on your life, you want to have minimized the number of regrets you have. That's what should drive people. Not how much money they have. It's regrets that I think haunt people at the end of their life.