Steve Jobs’ Graduation Speech: My Opinion

In a recent post I said that Steve Jobs seemed to live in a very limited intellectual world. I gave his Stanford graduation speech as an example. Someone asked me to explain. Here is my explanation.

The speech shows no sign of having read a book. It shows no sign of any intellectual interest outside his job.

It makes the insanely self-centered point that “if I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”

It shows no sign of learning from anyone else (except his calligraphy teacher, which hardly counts). It shows no sign of even having noticed anyone else — it is all Steve all the time. It mentions Stewart Brand, but only to comment about the Whole Earth Catalog.

It makes the banal point what seemed like bad news was actually good news (“it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me”).

It ends with a long string of banalities about death: “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.” A high school student could have said that — at a funeral, perhaps.

This is from someone at the center of an enormous on-going revolution. I tried to find praise for it but all I found was that someone in the Ukrainian government had plagiarized it.

26 Replies to “Steve Jobs’ Graduation Speech: My Opinion”

  1. I sort of liked his calligraphy example. Life is chaotic (in the mathematical sense), meaning you can’t very easily predict the future by analyzing the present. But I guess he had an optimism bias — things tend to work out for the better. I disagree there; the calligraphy course could just as easily resulted in an undesirable outcome.

    1. I disagree there; the calligraphy course could just as easily resulted in an undesirable outcome.

      What you have just said is more interesting than anything Jobs said in that speech.

  2. I think that whether the comments in the speech are ‘banal’ or not depends a lot on whether you think that Steve Jobs himself is interesting.

    You say his comments about death ‘could have been made by a high school student’.

    A high school student could have said the following:

    “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do.”

    Which, had it been said by a high school student it would be banal and uninteresting. It’s interesting because it was said by Winston Churchill.

    If contemplating death really was one of the most important factors in how Steve Jobs lived, isn’t that unusual for a CEO and something that it was very valuable for him to attempt to convey? Similarly, the comment about getting fired was also interesting – it sounds to me that he was saying that if he’d carried on being one of the most ‘successful’ twenty-somethings in modern history, he would not have learned things that were important to his later accomplishments.

    In any case, I don’t think the commencement speech provides evidence either way for Steve Jobs’s ‘limited intellectual world. He wasn’t there to prove that he’d read widely. The students were at Stanford, so presumably they were exposed to intellectual riches from other sources.

    Whether or not we agree about the paucity of Steve Jobs’s intellectual life, I do have a question:

    What do you wish he’d been exposed to intellectually that you think may have helped him do a more worthwhile job, and how do you think these sources might have influenced him?

    1. What do you wish he’d been exposed to intellectually that you think may have helped him do a more worthwhile job, and how do you think these sources might have influenced him?

      I think he could have learned a lot from reading Jane Jacobs. Jacobs constantly criticized top-down solutions to problems — the idea that “we know what is best for them”. For example, when she was asked “what should be done with the Twin Towers site (in New York)?” she suggested asking the people who worked there. In dealing with Foxconn, Apple — no doubt with Jobs’s approval — has taken a PR approach: Let’s do what looks good, lets make sure they conform to Western ideas of goodness (e.g., age of workers, working hours). This is “we know what is good for you” thinking. When the “we” and “you” are far apart it is absurd (but good PR, so it continues). A student of Jacobs would have let the workers say what is good for them.

    2. A high school student could have said the following:

      “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do.”

      Which, had it been said by a high school student it would be banal and uninteresting. It’s interesting because it was said by Winston Churchill.

      I find that quote funny and quirky — not banal. I can’t imagine a high-school student saying it. (In my experience, high school students save their sleeping for classrooms.) I might even take it seriously. I take a nap almost every day with my clothes on. What would happen if I took off my clothes?

  3. Seth: THANKS. I intended to flag my appreciation for your earlier post, but forgot. Having read the (truly poor) Isaacson bio, I find myself in complete agreement with you. He was an ethically and intellectually shallow, incredibly adept salesman.

    Many people lament the bio as a “missed opportunity” to find out what Steve really thought about the “big issues of our time”, be they technological or political or what have you. Spoiler: there is zero evidence Steve had deep thoughts about anything. He shares some shallow thoughts — literally — about the surface of various objects, but precious little else.

    Singe-mindedness is surely not incompatible with great success — he’s proof of that. It may even be helpful, and there are many other examples. I do not think his was a happy life, though many will judge it as a great one. On that score I haven’t decided for myself.

  4. Not liking top-down solutions is definitely something I can appreciate. I personally dislike being told what to do, and would probably hate to work for Apple in Cupertino, let alone Foxconn in China. Clearly Steve himself disliked being told what to do, but ‘hypocritically’ thought it was ok for others.

    So, let’s agree that Apple itself as an organization functions as a monument to top-down thinking.

    What great non top-down examples of large scale human technological cooperation can you point to that we can compare to them?

    1. So, let’s agree that Apple itself as an organization functions as a monument to top-down thinking.

      What great non top-down examples of large scale human technological cooperation can you point to that we can compare to them?

      It’s not Apple the organization — it’s Steve Jobs the CEO. He was remarkably successful, compared to other CEOs, at getting his way. In particular, to get Apple products to be enjoyable for him to use. How he did this I don’t know. I doubt it was the organization chart. I also doubt it was as simple as he was an insensitive jerk. Lots of people are insensitive jerks. Maybe it was the context, the product, the people he hired (who could see past the bullying) — I don’t know.

      But to answer your question, Southwest Airlines is well-run with happy employees and a very low rate of accidents. I would probably like a graduation speech by the head of Southwest Airlines.

  5. Seth: When I was at high school, I experimented with both napping in the afternoon, and at a separate time, with reducing my sleep to 4 hours per night. I could easily have said (and maybe did) something like the Churchill quote.

    I have also had brushes with death, and can assure you that those changed my outlook more than the sleep experiments.

    I think I’d have been much better off taking the reality of death seriously earlier in my life, and yet I don’t recall a single adult – certainly not anyone at college making that point. To me, it doesn’t seem like a banal point to make in a commencement speech.

    I think you’re clearly right that It’s not an intellectually great or even interesting speech if taken out of context. I’m questioning why you are judging it as such when it was meant to be heartfelt life-advice.

    LemmusLemmus: I disagree. Whether what someone says is interesting depends on what you know of their background. For example: If the chairman of the federal reserve delivers a speech about how capitalism is fundamentally flawed, it would be much more interesting than if a protestor at Occupy Wall Street delivered the same speech.

    1. I think you’re clearly right that It’s not an intellectually great or even interesting speech if taken out of context. I’m questioning why you are judging it as such when it was meant to be heartfelt life-advice.

      My overall point is that Steve Jobs’s legacy reflects the sort of person he was. To be blunt and harsh, he was shallow and incurious. I’m not saying such people should be prohibited from giving graduation speeches, I’m saying that when such people manage to gain control of one of the world’s most powerful companies, there will be room for improvement in how that company behaves. I only discuss the Stanford graduation speech because it is evidence about what kind of person Jobs was. You are right, so what if a graduation speech is shallow. I think Apple Computer’s response to the Foxconn suicides, which was a great opportunity to improve factory working conditions in many places, was squandered because of Steve Jobs. I also think that a wiser CEO would have pushed much harder to improve recyclability of Apple products. I am afraid that a shallow CEO hires shallow people. I hope I am wrong.

      Next week This American Life appears to be devoting a whole show to working conditions at Foxconn. Perhaps it will make the same point I am making here.

  6. Seth: I don’t understand the value of making these ‘frank’ judgements about Steve Jobs character. I know a number people who have had direct contact with Jobs. Almost all of them have attested to his character flaws, but a lack of curiosity was not amongst them, indeed some of them reported quite the opposite.

    It’s hard to see your comment that he “managed to gain control of one of the world most powerful companies” as anything other than a distortion of well known history. You must know that when Steve Jobs regained control of Apple it was only a few months away from bankruptcy. He did not gain control of one of the world’s most powerful companies. He gained control of a company that was on the verge of failure and then over a decade and a half built it into one of the worlds most powerful companies. It seems to me that you’re angry about something that Steve Jobs represents, but it’s not at all clear what that something is.

    I don’t think it’s obvious what level of influence Steve Jobs had over how Foxconn operates. He couldn’t just order it to be done differently – it was done by negotiation. How many competitors to Foxconn could Apple turn to if they didn’t get their way? He wasn’t a deity, and despite his charisma, there were plenty of people who he had to go along with to get things done.

    Alex: I think those are good examples too. However they also show the limits of what we know how to do so far. How would a bottom-up organization build billion gate 22nm processors? What about unibody laptop chassis, or battery technology? How about six-sigma defect levels in products that ship at a volume of 100m a year?

    I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that these things took decades for top-down organizations to learn to manage and that is real understanding about how to do them in a distributed bottom-up way that we simply haven’t developed yet, and I don’t see why it’s Steve Jobs’ fault for not developing them.

  7. Robin: We may be talking past each other. I read your original statement as saying that a spech can be made more interesting if you take the speaker’s background into account. I disagree with that. If the chairman of the fed and an OWS protester give the same speech, these speeches are equally interesting, because, by definition, they’re the same speech. (I am assuming no substantial differences in delivery.) What is more interesting about the chairman of the fed’s speech is not the speech itself, but *the fact that he would speak out against capitalism*. Even if it is a very poor speech, *this fact* would still be newsworthy. But that doesn’t make the speech itself interesting.

    Along those lines, one might argue that Jobs’ speech is interesting because it teaches you how to be successful, but such an interpretation would be wrong, as quite a few commenters have pointed out after the video went viral. If you want answers to those questions, you want, at minimum, an n>>1 sample with variation in the dependent variable.

  8. Robin, yeah, I should have said Jobs built Apple into one of the world’s most powerful companies. I’m not angry at him. I’m sorry he squandered big opportunities to make the world a better place. It’s hard for me to be sure how much influence he could have had at Foxconn, I agree, but I don’t think he even tried.

  9. LemmusLemmus: I think we have a philosophical difference of perspective. I don’t regard a communication as bearing information outside of it being a communication between a sender and a receiver. To me, this means that a printed speech is just a message in-transit and is only distinguished from noise at the point when it’s read. Whether it’s interesting depends on how predictable it is relative to the receiver’s preconceptions about the sender. When a receiver is blind to the identity of the sender, they still create a hypothetical model of the sender based on their own history. (my view is basically a straightforward interpretation of Shannon’s information theory)

    Seth: Fair enough. I do think it’s an interesting question – what could Steve Jobs have done better, and more importantly what tradeoffs would it have involved?

  10. “In particular, to get Apple products to be enjoyable for him to use. How he did this I don’t know. I doubt it was the organization chart. I also doubt it was as simple as he was an insensitive jerk. Lots of people are insensitive jerks. Maybe it was the context, the product, the people he hired (who could see past the bullying) — I don’t know. ”

    Hypothesis: Jobs was unusually good at figuring out what he wanted. I think people generally are much better at knowing what they don’t want than what they do want.

    1. Hypothesis: Jobs was unusually good at figuring out what he wanted. I think people generally are much better at knowing what they don’t want than what they do want.

      Interesting idea. The same has been said about Alice Waters. She can’t cook very well but she is a great critic of food other people have cooked.

  11. Seth & Nancy: I think what you’re talking about here is a key aspect of how Steve Jobs functioned – and one of the unusual things about his life was that starting at an early age, he had a huge set of opportunities to practice criticizing product design and then see the consequences.

    Very few people have the opportunity to do this even once, whereas Steve Jobs had thousands of chances to practice.

  12. So Steve Jobs didn’t engage in some tokenistic behavior (recycling, really?) along your preferred political lines, therefore he’s “shallow”?

  13. Thanks, Seth. You’re a breath of fresh air in the world of insane Jobs-worship. Your analysis and openness to discourse make your blog one of the best I read.

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