The Steve Jobs Speech; the Kurt Vonnegut Lesson
Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford University spread pretty fast around the Internet yesterday—the day after his death. My friend Jim posted it to Facebook in the morning, I put it on this blog shortly thereafter, beating Andrew Sullivan to the punch by a few hours. Wil Wheaton blogged about the same portion of the speech I did. Other friends on Facebook posted their favorite moments. Good for them. It's a worthy speech.
Jobs talks about dropping out of college and following his dream. Among the things he says is this:
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.
He also says this:
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.
Words of wisdom. At the same time, I felt slightly guilty hearing them. I certainly like doing what I'm doing—writing and editing what I write and edit—but it's not necessarily what I'd be doing if it were the last day of my life. So, listening to Jobs' speech yesterday morning, some part of me thought, “I wish I hadn't settled. I wish I'd been like Steve Jobs and followed my dream so that I could love what I did.”
It took a few hours before the other shoe dropped: “Wait a minute. I did follow my dream. I just failed at it.”
I wanted to be a writer of fiction. In the early 1990s I quit grad school and got a job at a Seattle bookstore, first as a cashier then in its warehouse, and did this for several years to support myself, while, with what free time I had, I wrote short stories, novellas, attempts at novels. None of it ever panned out. I could line the walls of my office with the rejection notices I received. Most were form rejections, but every once in a while I'd get an encouraging, personal rejection notice—once even from The New Yorker—saying that while the story I'd sent was good, it didn't fit in with their current plans, etc., etc., but please send something else. But the subsequent stories were never good enough, either. For a time, I even considered writing a story called “Something Else.” You wanted something else? Here it is.
So I failed. I think I failed for several reasons. One, my goals were high. Two, my talent was limited. And three, I was attempting to prosper in a dying industry.
By the early 1990s, few general interest magazines published short stories. There were certainly literary quarterlies everywhere, associated with universities, but the stuff I wrote was a bit too general, or silly, or straightfoward for this crowd. I wasn't doing anything new with language or form. I was just telling my stories with my minimal talent.
In 1999, several years after I stopped writing fiction (without really realizing it), I head the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Vonnegut for The Seattle Times. Vonnegut had just released “Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction,” his short stories from the late 1940s and '50s, and we talked about his early literary career. In a foreword to “Bagombo,” he writes about TV killing the short story culture that allowed him to flourish and become the novelist he became, and I asked whether he had foreseen this. This was his answer:
You saw TV coming in almost like a stormfront. Suddenly everyone was buying TVs, and the entertainment was on quite a high level, too. TV was a much better buy for advertisers than the magazines. The magazines had been very rich at one time, because they were the way to get ads inside a person's front door.
[But] what TV does, which we ink-and-paper people could never do, is give people artificial friends and relatives. Right inside the house. ... Peter Jennings really is a relative, and a charming one. Please come into my home any time, Peter.
The culture I needed to flourish, in other words, died before I was even born.
I mention all of this in case anyone else felt guilty listening to Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address. Steve Jobs didn't settle. He did what he loved. Every morning in the mirror he asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And he usually answered “Yes.”
Steve Jobs was talented, and tough, and he took the road less traveled. But he was also very, very lucky. The thing he loved to do was just beginning.