Facing death is a wake-up call to live your life to the fullest: The most important legacy of Steve Jobs
At first sight death seems to be the opposite of good life – it is quite literally the end of it. But philosophers throughout the times have known that by acknowledging one’s own mortality one is able to rid oneself of the trivialities of everyday life and chains of conventionality to live a more authentic, personally expressive and fuller life. Few contemporary people have, however, expressed this insight more precisely than the late Steve Jobs as is evident already from this quote:
“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 did many marvelous things in life. Founded Apple and lead it into developing stuff like the the Mac computer, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iWhatever. Lead Pixar into revolutionizing computer-based animation with films such as Toy Story. But for me personally by far the most impressive thing he ever did was a commencement speech he held at Stanford University in 2005. In this short speech he gives three invaluable lessons about how one should approach one’s life to live it to the fullest.
Firstly, life makes a coherent story only when we look at it with hindsight. The problem is, of course, that we have to live it forward. Steve illustrates this with a story about how he as a young college drop-out took a course in calligraphy without it having any practical application in his life at the moment. Ten years later, however, this knowledge of beautiful typography partially made the base for the sophisticated visual design that has ever since been the trademark of Apple products. For Steve, this is a lesson about dots: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. 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. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Secondly, make sure to love what you do. Steve recounts the difficulties he faced when he was 30 and suddenly fired from the company he had founded and which had been the focus of his entire adult life. The experience was devastating but eventually lead into many great things such as founding and leading few other companies – and finding a wife – before returning to steer the Apple. He was convinced that the only thing that kept him going was that he truly loved what he did. And this is the lesson: “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. 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. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
These are important lessons but perhaps the most important advice for successful life is the third one: Put your life into perspective by thinking about your death. As a teenager, Steve found great inspiration in the quote: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” He tells that since then he has looked into mirror every morning and asked himself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” This is a powerful question. If one would seriously ask it everyday one could avoid many lukewarm choices and stagnant phases of life in which one is too lazy or too afraid to effect the necessary change. The question pulls one out of the comfort zone of conventionality and puts the mirror in front of oneself: Am I really living the life I want to live?
Now Steve Job is dead. He didn’t want to die but he had accepted the fact that it 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.” His contribution to the technological development has been enormous but in ten years the products he helped to design have become antiquated and new, better and more powerful ones have replaced them. He knew it himself: “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.”
On the other hand his wisdom for life will not be outdated as long as there are human beings who struggle with life and with the inevitable death. I hope that the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs will be that we should keep in mind the inevitable fact of life he himself today faced. Because facing your mortality is a wake-up call to seize control of your own life:
“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.”
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