“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing 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
So goes the now-classic speech given by Steve Jobs in 2005 to Stanford University students. Like many young people, though, these beaming students probably didn’t grasp what the man on the podium was saying. As well, they shouldn’t. Death is the farthest thing from their minds. The future beckons, the road is wide open.
But death and the end are the themes of the day, as Jobs succumbed to his illness on October 5, 2011. He was 56. His words about death take on greater importance, as well as his warning.
What do we lose when we die? The simplest and truest answer is one more day. Last April, I had a serious blood infection. When I was in the emergency room on a springtime day, as doctors and nurses frantically worked to stabilize me before my organs could fail, I knew there was a good chance I might not see another day.
Lying on the bed, sensing the door gently closing, I looked to my past for a little comfort, could not recall a single work day, and then came the crushing realization I had wasted my time.
Most of us spend more than eight hours a day at work, not including lunch and a long commute. That’s a lot of time, maybe a third of our lives. It would have been nice to look back fondly upon it. I’m sure Jobs had no regrets about his work life. He found the path to follow his passion well before yesterday.
Sure, he no doubt dealt with the trivial things like increasing shareholder value, speeding up time to market and exploiting competitive advantage, but he wasn’t driven by them. Most people accidentally slip into a pursuit of these castles in the sand. Life is full of trickery that way.
For Jobs, the product was the passion. In an industry built on O’s and 1’s, Jobs saw a place for functional art. He envisioned full-length animated movies. He wanted music right now. By combining his love of creativity and his love of technology, he created for himself a pretty good work day.
Like everything seemingly significant at the moment, Jobs’ passing will fade over time. Deadlines will put our focus back on the task at hand. It’s back to work as usual. After all, we’ve got to go shopping, pay off car loans, and lose thousands of dollars in underwater mortgages. For most people, change is difficult. Reinvention gets harder and harder every passing year.
But Jobs understood that the stakes are too high not to change.
Maybe this knowledge is the source of his genius, not his ability to create cool gadgets and new markets. Jobs’ speech at Stanford came shortly after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his words were tinged with the teachings of Zen Buddhism: the trappings of the ego in the land of impermanence.
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.