Monday Mornings with Madison

Words of Wisdom from Steve Jobs – Part 3

Living Your Own Life To Avoid Regrets

This week we conclude our three-part series reflecting on the Commencement Speech Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios, delivered to Stanford University students on June 12, 2005.  His speech — told in three stories – offered the graduating seniors advice on how to live their lives after college, told by a man who himself had dropped out of college and yet achieved the highest level of business success. 

Each of his three stories was a message unto itself.  The first part advised graduates to have the courage to try new things in life without worrying about connecting the dots.  The second part advised them to have the courage to find their passion and then do great work doing what they love.  Today we conclude with the third story in his speech.  He said it was about death… but actually it really was about life.  He advised students to be true to themselves throughout life’s journey in order to avoid having regrets when death inevitably comes calling.  In light of his recent passing, his words are particularly poignant.

My third story is about death.

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 knew 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 you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already bare.  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.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s 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 others’ 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.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960′s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.  Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

The same sentiments that Mr. Jobs shared with those young graduates was expressed a decade earlier by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in interview with Daniel Redwood in Healthy.net (August, 1995).  “We all die the same way, basically. The experience of death and after death is all the same.  It only depends how you have lived. If you have lived fully, then you have no regrets, because you have done the best you can do…. If you made lots of goofs– much better to have made lots of goofs — than not to have lived at all…”

Indeed, Mr. Jobs too advised graduates not to waste time living someone else’s life.  We all think we know these lessons, and yet so many reach the end of life with the same regrets.  According to Bronnie Ware, who spent a portion of her life caring for the dying, the five most common regrets her dying patients expressed were:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I had let myself be happier.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Though Mr. Jobs’ did not get the ‘few more decades’ he had hoped for in that speech, he clearly knew that death could come anytime.  As we look to 2012 — time that is hoped for but not promised – perhaps in Mr. Jobs’ honor, our list of resolutions should look something like this:

  1. Follow my heart and intuition.
  2. Work at something I love.
  3. Allow my passion to lead me to do great work.
  4. Live true to myself.
  5. Listen to my inner voice.
  6. Give myself permission to be happier.
  7. Express my feelings to those who matter to me.
  8. Stay in touch with friends and family.
  9. Stay hungry.
  10. Stay foolish.

Quote of the Week

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” Sydney Smith

© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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