Steve Jobs and Life in the Shadow of Death

"Death is very likely the single best invention of Life."

Six years ago, standing in the warm California sun on June 12, 2005, Apple co-founder and then-CEO Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class of Stanford University. It was a spare and deceptively simple speech "about three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories."

What makes the speech remarkable was that all three stories, one explicitly, and two implicitly, were about death. And therefore it was about living in the face of death. I've not read every commencement speech by every American CEO in the last 25 years, but I'm pretty sure that none of them, and in fact no speech by any public figure, has been as unflinching about facing death, and as unflinching about affirming the creativity and openness and generosity and freedom what comes from it.

Jobs' speech is not filled with conventional heroics; it avoids the routine cliches of mere whistling in the face of death, of letting the good times roll, of muscular posturing, of puerile sentimentality, of easy cynicism, of dumb resignation. In it, as apparently in his life, Steve Jobs meets death: he accepts his ending, and realizes that this knowledge in a sense sets him free.

And it seems to have been much more than a personal freedom: Jobs' "death awareness" seems (I think) to have shaped not just his work, but his place of work, the company he co-founded, was fired from, and to which he returned and, indeed, resurrected.

In the details that follow, I'm relying on Jobs' own presentation of them, in the Stanford speech. The text is online, and you can watch the entire 15-minute address in a Stanford video on YouTube. The three stories Jobs refers to are:1) going to college, dropping out, and then dropping into a calligraphy course that later appeared in "the first computer with beautiful calligraphy," the Macintosh. Jobs calls this a story about "connecting the dots."3) reading a quote, at 17, something like "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll certainly be right," and "every morning" since, looking at himself in the mirror and asking "if today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" This is the story explicitly "about death." 

2) being fired from Apple at age 30, becoming a "very public failure," and yet discovering that "I still loved what I did...And so I decided to start over." He calls this a story about "love and loss."

But all three are about loss, or in a sense death, and about love, and the way these two realities shape us, or rather how we shape ourselves in their light.

His short-lived college career began "before I was born," he said, when his biological mother decided to give him up for adoption. I think that qualifies as loss, though clearly one that he only realized later in his life, and one that was accompanied by the love of his "real" parents. Jobs doesn't refer to his adopted parents as "adopted parents." He calls them "my parents," "my mother" and "my father."

They promised his biological mother, who was an unwed graduate student, that he would someday go to college. And he did, at expensive Reed College for six months until he realized "I couldn't see the value in it." "So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK." He was free then to attend an on-campus calligraphy class. He was drawn to because "It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way science can't capture, and I found it fascinating."

All of this fascination, and the impact of calligraphy on personal computer typefaces, become part of the first Macintosh. "It all came back to me," Jobs said, as they were designing the computer. This connection is what he calls "connecting the dots." "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards," he said. "So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever."

"Trust" can be understood, and usually is, either as a personal and often irrational decision or a sociological construct. But for Jobs, trust seems to finally mean faith, though he seems to have deliberately avoided that term here, which even more than trust is reduced to irrationality and subjectivism. Drawn to beauty, to historicity, to artistry, Jobs somehow was able to look with confident expectation into the future.

His firing from Apple is even more clearly a loss, a kind of death, one that he experienced as very public and apparently at least for a time shameful. But in the midst of that pain, he saw that "I was still in love. And so I decided to start over...[Getting fired] freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." He lists three examples of this creativity: the launch of NeXT, of Pixar, and his marriage and family.

"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick," he said. "Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did."

From what I can tell, Jobs is very deliberate and very serious about using the words "faith" and "love." "I'm convinced the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did," he said. "You've got to find what you love." And find it in both life and work. So, "don't settle," he said.

In his third story, Jobs talks explicitly about death. In 2004, at 49 years old, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was told by his doctors that it was almost certainly a cancer that was incurable and "that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months." "I lived with that diagnosis all day," he recalled. He undoubtedly left much unsaid about that day, about looking at the near-certain end of his life measured in weeks, not decades. That night, after a biopsy, the doctors realized it was a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that can be cured with surgery.

"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," he told the graduates. "No one wants to die....And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it."

And then he said something odd, at least odd for 21st century Americans. "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," he told the 20-somethings sitting before him. "But someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away."

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."

Jobs's speech is not conventionally inspiring. He didn't set out "to inspire." As he himself said, "no big deal," just three stories. Yet stories are about finding, creating, and sharing meaning, all activities that are essentially human and ultimately grounded (at least the great stories, the ones worth telling) in what is most real: love and faith. I find myself wondering to what degree this awareness of loss, of death, impressed itself on Apple's corporate culture and on its product design process.

Just after Jobs resigned as CEO in August, long-time Apple-watcher John Gruber, at Daring Fireball, penned an astute observation that I think bears on this. Gruber wrote:

   "Apple’s products are replete with Apple-like features and details, embedded in Apple-like apps, running on Apple-like devices, which come packaged in Apple-like boxes, are promoted in Apple-like ads, and sold in Apple-like stores. The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth.

   "Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like. The same thought, care, and painstaking attention to detail that Steve Jobs brought to questions like “How should a computer work?”, “How should a phone work?”, “How should we buy music and apps in the digital age?” he also brought to the most important question: “How should a company that creates such things function?”

   "Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself."

These qualities and attributes are not limited to Steve Jobs or his company of course. But words like humility, truth, love, faith, and even death are not words that one associates with many others on the Fortune 500 list. I think Jobs' awareness of death played a role in forming his view of work, both in general and his work in particular, not as a job or as a career but as a calling, a vocation. And part of that calling seems to have to have been to imbue Apple itself with a similar sense of vocation.

Researchers, drawing on the works of Ernest Becker and Eric Erikson, have begun to study how "death awareness" affects workers, a reality that companies will be forced to face with a rapidly aging workforce. The intimation of mortality can lead to profound anxiety, to panic, to depression, to withdrawal and isolation. But it can also lead to what researchers call "prosocial motivation" linked to "higher levels of generative behaviors, such as helping, mentoring, and effort and initiative

in tasks that benefit others."

The quote is from the 2009 paper, "The hot and cool of death awareness at work: mortality cues, aging, and self-protective and prosocial motivations," by Adam Grant and Kimberly Wade-Benzoni. They quote from Job's Stanford speech to illustrate how "death reflection motivates individuals to turn to their values for cues about how to prioritize tasks, goals, and activities."And it contains this observation from another researcher, D.K. Simonton: "As people approach their last years, they may undergo a life assessment, a reflection on where they have been and on how little time remains to travel, and so may feel that the limited future must be exploited to the utmost. . . . For creative individuals, the outcome of this life review may be a significant reshaping of the content and form of those works selected as the career’s coda, rendering them qualitatively distinct from other works. Last-works effects hinge not on the creator’s chronological or even career age but rather on the perceived proximity of death."

From the Stanford speech: "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 naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Steve Jobs' singular witness is that he did not flinch from death. Not as a result of iron-like inner strength, but as the outworking of faith and love.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)