Why Steve Jobs' Stanford Speech is So Good October 10, 2011
With the passing of Steve Jobs this week, millions of people have discovered or re-visited his famous Stanford Commencement Speech.
Why do we find this speech so inspiring - even more so than most commencement speeches, of which there are many inspiring ones to choose from? Here are a few ideas as to the source of the power behind this well-known speech:
Brevity - Steve Jobs' entire speech is structured around three very well-curated stories that hold the key themes and lessons that he would like to share. In a less well-known speech, entrepreneur Jarl Mohn structured his quality USC commencement speech around the three themes: dumb luck, crushing failure and delusions and self-deception. This simple structure helps the audience to follow along and retain the most wisdom:
Acknowledging Mortality - "My third story is about death." When listening to a speaker we of course strive to find things in their experience that can be related to our own, and there is of course nothing more universal to all people than death. Steve Jobs' Stanford speech allows us to hear his thoughts about death and mortality and what we can learn from them, after he confronted these issues himself. It is a different sort of speech than Martin Luther King Jr.'s last sermon before his assassination in which he famously proclaimed:
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Martin Luther King Jr. was aware of the threat against his life from all the warnings he received from the FBI, just as Steve Jobs faced his own life threat made known by his diagnosis. It is a fate that we all share, but so often prefer to ignore. And yet there is unmistakable power in being forced to confront this shared destiny by those who have already done so, and to gain knowledge from their experience:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool that I've encountered to help me make the big decisions in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrasment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truely important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking that you have something to lose."
The Underdog - Part of why we love Steve Jobs' and this speech is because he struggled before he became great. He dropped out of college not out of hubris, but because it was so expensive that he feared the burden it was placing upon his parents. It his reminiscent of another great graduation speaker who as a single mother rose from poverty to incredible wealth and success:
Not unlike the topic of death, by focusing on his struggles, Steve Jobs touches on a universally shared topic. We all struggle. But not all of us move beyond our struggles to reach greatness, which is why hearing the advice of someone who has becomes so powerful. Simple, yet true. "Sometimes life is going to hit 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. If you haven't found it yet - keep looking and don't settle." It reminds me of the image of the stork swallowing the frog and yet the frog half-way down the stork's throat still has it's hands around the stork's neck. Never give up!
Authority - The whole nature of a commencement speech is that the experienced, wise, individual is bestowing their life knowledge and wisdom upon the fresh, young graduates. And Steve Jobs has the authority to bestow this knowlege perhaps better than most. He has achieved on-going success, across multiple endeavors. And he has the wisdom that comes with age and being able to look back and understand events and lessons and their impact in ways that can only be done with great hindsight. "You have to trust that the dots will connect down the road. give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference."
Honesty - Steve is well-known as an incredibly private person, and yet his Stanford graduation speech opens the kimono more than most public appearances. We learn of his adoptive family life and his struggles both professionally and with his health. The level of honesty is refreshing. Compare it to the speech below, which while great in its own right, is the opposite of personable - indeed it is coming from a persona created by Sacha Baron Cohen. Each approach has its place, but the value of Steve's Stanford speech is also found in its naked honesty.
Contagious Enthusiasm - "I still loved what I did - the turn of events at Apple did not change that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love." We all want to love what we do, and to value this time that we have on Earth. Steve Jobs was lucky to have found that as he said "at an early age" and the enthusiasm that he carries with him for what he does is contagious and leaves one hanging on each of his words.
Comedy - While largely a serious speech, Jobs didn't pass up a good opportunity to add a little humor in recounting the impact of dropping in on a typography class in college and how what he learned there ultimately impacted the whole world, via integration into the Macintosh computer - and since 'Windows just copied the Mac' - ultimately the full computer marketplace. Steve Jobs' speech couldn't touch the number of zingers and one-liners in Ali G's famous Harvard commencement speech, but it found the right balance.
Here's to your future failures and successes, and the inspiring commencement speech of your own that will surely follow.