Life’s Lessons from Steve Jobs
My first real look at Steve Jobs the person was during the Stanford University commencement address he gave in 2005 while I was still a graduate student there. That day I saw a very different man from the annoyingly brash young entrepreneur that was the protagonist of many emotionally messy stories in silicon valley folklore. He seemed to have become considerably tempered by wisdom and mellowed by the passage of time. The well delivered speech he gave that day was replete with unadulterated truth and nuggets of wisdom. He spoke about triumph, love, and loss with a raw purity that could have only been forged from equally raw real life experiences. Oddly, he simultaneously possessed a surprising level of humility as well as the confidence of a man who founded and served as the CEO of the most valuable technology company in the entire world. It was natural to wonder about the nature of the various experiences that had so thoroughly transformed the man from an acid dropping college dropout into one of the most powerful men in the world.
As one of the main titans of the 20th century tech and computer industry boom, Apple co-founder Steven Paul Jobs was larger than life itself during his relatively short stint here on planet earth. His story is all the more remarkable because of the tremendous odds he seemed to have to constantly overcome in order to gain the power required to achieve his goals. Steve had it a bit difficult right from the start when he was given up by his biological parents for adoption until Paul and Clara Jobs adopted and raised him in silicon valley. Most people would have taken being given up for adoption as a sign of their unimportance and lack of significance to the universe, but not Steve. He chose to pay attention to the fact that Paul and Clara Jobs specifically picked him as the son they wanted. This “selection” by Paul and Clara Jobs gave him a sense of importance and specialness that he carried throughout his life… sometimes to a fault.
The life story of Steve Jobs is filled with many lessons that will readily congeal into nuggets of wisdom if studied carefully. Although there is much to learn from Steve’s life, it should be noted that like all of us, he was not perfect. He was inherently stubborn and willful by nature, and thus a lot of the wisdom he gained came from hard lessons. As a matter of fact some of the most valuable lessons we can learn from his life come from his most painful mistakes. For example, he was once forced out of the company he founded with his close friend Steve Wozniak because of his overtly difficult and abrasive working personality. This was a devastating blow at the time but it came with many invaluable lessons that he would use to further elevate himself later on in his life and career. This was generally the pattern of Steve’s life… he’d be confronted with serious challenges, find a way to overcome them, and use the difficulties from those challenges as seeds for further advancement.
Everything that happens to each of us in life is a form of instruction if each event is properly analyzed, and the lessons therein are properly absorbed. Although this sounds reasonable to most well adjusted human beings, there are a number of factors that keep us from capitalizing on the lessons embedded in each event that we experience.
Our good Experiences: If we are going through a good experience, the natural human tendency is to stop paying deep attention as we are subconsciously lulled into thinking things will always be as great as they currently are. As a result of this false sense of infinite security, we miss valuable insights and wisdom that could serve us well in the long run. For example, if your romantic relationship is going well, the natural human tendency is to slowly neglect paying appropriate attention to the details of your partner’s needs and desires. This might work for a while but if care is not taken, you and your partner will slowly drift apart.
Our bad experiences: When going through a negative experience, the natural tendency is to get emotional and to spend a preponderance of our time wishing the current negative circumstances that we find ourselves in hadn’t come to us. What we miss in times like these are the solutions to our current predicament and/or the opportunities that lay hidden in such difficult times. For example, the natural inclination for someone who has just suffered a bad injury is to get depressed and dejected rather than to see the injury as an opportunity to learn more about their sport or improve their nutrition and general proprioceptive abilities which will make said person a much better athlete in the long run.
Our own lack of willpower: Human beings are creatures of habit and this makes it very difficult for us to change our ways even if we logically know we’re in the wrong. As a result, many of us keep making the same mistake time and time again until a horrible experience gets our attention. Even then, the horrible experience might not be enough to get us to change our ways as we may fall into the dark depressive “why me” cycle. A good example of this would be a smoker who knows he should quit, but cannot bring himself to do it until he gets diagnosed with lung cancer. Instead of seeing it as a wake up call or a strong indication of a need to change, the lung cancer diagnosis sends him into a negative spiral of depression which he cannot get out of… making the situation worse and worse.
Learning from one’s own experiences in real time can be difficult for the reasons stated above. Even if we do try to learn from our own experiences, it can take quite a long time before we truly comprehend the hidden meaning or lesson embedded in the things that happen to us. For this reason, I have found it wise and most efficient to learn from the mistakes, failures, and triumphs of the great ones who came before us. The life of Steve Jobs is a good case study for anyone who aspires to accomplish great things in their life on any level: career, personal development, interpersonal etc. By the end of his life, Steve had become a master alchemist… skilled in the art of turning adverse circumstances and experiences into pure gold. This skill is one of the most invaluable ingredients to success in life. Below, I have summarized some of the lessons that we can all learn from following the life and career of one of the greatest industry titans of the digital age.
- Don’t ignore your health
- Value loyal people and treat them well
- Trust your intuition above all else
- Remember we’re all going to die, so do what you love
- Turn shit into sugar
- Develop and hone your social intelligence/skills
- If you own your own company, don’t allow “bozos” to infest it
Throughout his career, Steve Jobs was literally obsessed with attaining greatness through his work. This obsessive attention to his vocation and career came before pretty much everything else in his life. He wasn’t the kind of friend who would unfailingly attend birthday parties or wedding anniversaries because work came first and his close friends understood that about him. He even went as far as to tell Walter Isaacson – the author of his autobiography – that the reason for wanting an autobiography was to have something to help his children understand why he wasn’t always there for them. This intense obsession with his work was probably the biggest reason he succeeded so wildly, and simultaneously also one of the chief reasons why his health failed him at such an early age. The constant stress that must have come from working so hard for so many years in such an obsessive fashion must have no doubt taken a toll on his health, culminating in a pancreatic cancer diagnosis by age 48. Even after the cancer was diagnosed as an operable tumor that hadn’t yet spread, Steve chose not to have the surgery recommended by his doctors to remove the tumor. Instead, he chose to use unproven alternative treatment methods to attempt a cure for his cancer. It is hard to fathom why a man who was for all practical purposes a borderline genius chose to ignore the conventional medical wisdom that was so plainly laid out in front of him, but this story teaches us all a very valuable lesson: No matter how smart, rich, or wealthy you are, none of it means very much if you don’t have your health. This article contains valuable insights on how to care for your health.
For someone who was almost universally branded an asshole, Steve Jobs had an uncanny knack for magically attracting some of the best and most loyal people into his life. When he did manage to attract loyal people into his life, he was smart enough to treat them with the requisite respect and care in order to keep them around for the long term. Examples of such loyal and important people in Steve’s life are his widow Laurene Powell who stood by him and cared for him through his battle with cancer and his good friend and Oracle founder Lawrence Ellison who befriended him in spite of the fact that he got kicked out of the company he started. This even extended to the folks who bought and consumed the products his company made… apple fanatics are amongst the most loyal customers in the world. The reason why loyalty is important is simple – we will all fail, look bad, or get embarrassed at some point in our lives. No one is immune to life’s inevitable pitfalls. When you have loyal people around you though, they will support you and even help pull you through those tough times regardless of how difficult and damning they may seem. So next time you get angry with your best friend, wife, husband, or dog, try to remember all the times that they stood by you when you weren’t at your best and be thankful they are still by your side… this will help you treat them like the nuggets of gold they truly are.
The intuition is a special superpower that we all possess as human beings. Many religions and philosophies liken the intuition to a little calm voice that springs from within. This little calm voice is inaudible to the rest of the world, and can only be heard by the individual from which it emanates. It should be noted that this isn’t the voice that you hear in your head during a fit of anger, or the frantic panicky voice you hear in your head in times of fear. Actually, these negative emotions will often overshadow your intuitive voice unless you do a lot of personal development work to make sure your intuitive voice is the loudest one from within, regardless of the current circumstances you may find yourself in. The intuitive voice ALWAYS speaks the unadulterated truth… the only problem is that very few of us actually listen to it. Of all the non religious historical figures that I have bothered to read up on, Steve Jobs was one of the most loyal to his intuitive voice. In his 20s, his intuition somehow knew that sitting in classrooms, taking notes, doing problem sets, and taking midterms where absolutely not the best use of his time or talent. Thus his intuition prompted him to drop out of Reed College after barely a year there to pursue a career as an entrepreneur. Most people would not have taken this leap of faith for fear of failure and being subsequently laughed to scorn by others… but he did. And the courage he showed to listen to his intuition made all the difference in his life. Thank goodness he made that fateful decision… I mean can you imagine life without your iPhone? This part of Steve’s story teaches us another valuable lesson: Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition, they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is really just a bunch of noise.
Life is fleeting, and a majority of each of our lives will be spent working and spending time with those close to us. Life can also be very difficult… although it has its joyous and triumphant moments, it also brings an equal helping of challenging and intensely painful ones. For these reasons, it is of the utmost importance to do everything possible to squeeze out every last joyous moment you can out of life before time runs out. For instance, you may have to “selfishly” reject a handful of eligible romantic suitors in favor of the one that really makes your heart sing. You might have to disappoint your parents and quit going to law school so that you can focus your attention on your true passion in photography. You should be prepared for the fact that making such decisions will raise the eyebrows of the people around you and perhaps make them think you a bit foolish and/or irresponsible. You must forge ahead and make them anyway because like it or not our time here on earth is limited… the truth is that you and I will both soon be dead. When you think about it, almost everything (shame, fear of embarrassment, loss of social standing) falls away in the face of death… leaving only what is truly important to you. Although death is the ultimate fear for all of us, we can strive to turn that dynamic around and use it to create a sense of urgency in our lives, prompting us to do the very most with the limited time we have.
Even after years of contemplation, I still don’t understand why bad things happen to good people. If you know why, please feel free to contact me and explain or leave your thoughts in the comments section. I do know for certain that unfair things happen to all of us in life regardless of how nice or kindly we may be. The only sense I can make of that is that the bad things that happen to us in life are a sort of challenge that the universe issues to us… will you stand up to the challenge and overcome it? Or will you waste valuable time hurling curses at the wind like a child and sulk at your misfortune? I realize how cold that sounds, but I neither made the rules of our existence nor possess the power to change them. We must all simply work with what we have been given until we gain enough power to command better circumstances. Throughout his life, adverse circumstances befell Steve Jobs and he very often found a way to transform those adverse circumstances (shit) into unique advantages (sugar). A good example of this was when he was first fired from Apple Computer in his 30s. This must have been very painful and shameful at the time, but the flip side of this was that it freed him of the burden of success. The heaviness of his early wild success was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. He turned the disappointment of being fired from the company he started into one of the most successful digital animation studios in the entire world – Pixar. It would have been much easier to sit around and feel sorry for oneself under such circumstances, but he didn’t. Instead, he took some time to let the pain pass and he eventually got up, dusted himself off, and turned the shit the universe dealt to him into fine sugar.
The big reason why Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple in the 1980s was due to his habit of verbally and mentally assaulting his peers and subordinates when he found their work a bit wanting. Although he was no doubt a brilliant man who added a lot of value to Apple Computer, he became a little too arrogant and difficult to work with. His behavior was soon branded unbearable by many of his colleagues at Apple and he was unceremoniously dumped by the company he founded soon thereafter. In this new globalized economy that we all live and work in, each one of us will need other people to help us on our way to success. Even writers who create and publish books on their own still need publishers to get it out in print or digital storehouses at which to host their work. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance to really get a handle on how to charm different types of people so that they want to actually help you on your way to success. Even if you are an introvert and don’t need people all that much, it is still a valuable tool to have in the event that you suddenly find yourself in a situation that requires good people skills. This lesson from Steve’s story is simple: No matter how smart you are, you will need people on your way to the top. Be sure to carefully pick the best people you can find and don’t let your success trick you into thinking you can treat people like crap and get away with it. It might work for a while but certainly not indefinitely.
Steve Jobs was almost militant about not tolerating mediocre or sub par behavior at Apple. People who got in the way of making the best possible products were immediately and unceremoniously fired. He had the same zero tolerance policy in his personal life, coldly cutting off once dear friends who he felt had treated him badly or been disloyal. This lesson is pretty self explanatory and goes along the same lines of realizing that your time on earth is limited and is much better spent improving yourself and creating as much value for the world and your loved ones as possible. It is therefore of the utmost importance to work insanely hard to create a private world for yourself that you love and enjoy. In addition, you must be extremely selective about the people you let into your private world. If you let too many of the wrong people in and let them fester, they will destroy what you have built. This is as true for your life as it is for your business or career. It might sound a bit intolerant or cocky, but I assure you, it is the cold truth.
The biggest lesson that I have learned from the life of Steve Jobs is that all of us will fall at some point or the other in our lives. Even the mighty Michael Jordan got beat up by the Detroit Pistons for a couple of years before he finally got too strong for them and ascended to even higher levels of success. Since failure and the associated pain that comes with it is a common denominator to us all, it is really the way we handle these issues that makes all the difference in our lives. It is a simple concept in theory, but a really difficult one to implement in practice. It would have been much easier for Steve Jobs to run away from Silicon Valley after his embarrassing exit from Apple, but he didn’t. Instead, he did the emotionally difficult thing to do by facing his mistakes and correcting them one by one. This act of courage resulted in the birth and development of some of the most amazing companies ever seen on earth. Although Steve was far from a perfect human being, his life’s story leaves a multitude of lessons that we can all benefit from provided we can find the courage to actually implement them.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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