With college commencement season upon us again, it is time to revisit Steve Jobs’ famous June 12, 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford University. In spite of Jobs’ “think different” mantra, his banner speech echoes the common inconsistencies and contradictions of popular subjectivism.
Woven throughout the speech is Jobs’ warning not to “be trapped by dogma,” and the exhortation to “follow your heart and intuition.” He describes dogma as “living with the results of other people’s thinking.” “Others’ opinions” may be “the noise” that “drowns out your own inner voice.” The graduates are also urged to “trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” Aren’t these imperatives themselves “dogmatic?”
Jobs’ discourse goes on to eulogize freedom and possibility. Starting over is called “light”; success, “heavy.” Yet, absent the right sense of the true and the good, “trusting the gut” may lead either to gluttony or to starvation. Eve trusted the serpent; Adam trusted Eve. Dropping out of college may lead to riches, but also to destitution. Spinning a failure is not the same as learning from it and responsibly making the appropriate amends. Skill at “connecting the dots” and rationalizing past errors may brilliantly poeticize a life but it does not necessarily make one morally virtuous. Oftentimes, some dots must be corrected, repaired, and never drawn again.
Behind every life there is a ledger of social debts. The opinions of others may sometimes be mere “noise,” in Jobs’ phrasing, but they may also be crucial life lessons, emergency manuals, and necessary maps. Calligraphy, which he finds “fascinating,” is the result of other people’s thinking. It closely follows some established and specified standards (or perhaps a kind of dogma?).
According to Jobs, death is the grand motivator, destination, and master sweeper. “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.” Memento mori may be an antidote for pride, even a neon sign to revise our priorities, but the spur driving life’s major decisions? I have yet to meet someone who has entered marriage, his or her course of studies, or their profession at the urging of remembering death. A higher purpose or a person (human or divine) often does the calling.
Yet, Jobs’ address continues, “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.” The underlying belief is that the new is necessarily better than the old and that doing is better than being. Personal value is strictly instrumental, contingent on novelty and productivity. Alien to this are the notions of the intrinsic worth and dignity of the human person, and of destination not just as endpoint but as ultimate end.
In Jobs’ speech, the featured terms are love and heart (individual preferences or feelings), creativity, and intuition (repeated thirteen, four, and two times, respectively). Though aesthetic values such as creativity and ingenuity comprise an important part of being fully human, on their own they are sorely lacking. Aesthetics unconnected to morality cannot tell apart the wicked from the saintly, the villain from the hero. By which criteria ought choices and results to be assessed in such a self-contained universe?
Paradoxically, “intuitive” thinking may focus the person on just one track, instead of opening other alternatives. Surely, many Stanford graduates were familiar with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s work on the strengths and flaws of intuitive thinking, such as overconfidence in spite of inadequate information or evidence. What if our atomized “intuition” tends to stifle creativity, or even to rouse our worst instincts? How many marriages have failed following the trust-in-intuition dogma? How many businesses? How many careers?
Above all else, Jobs’ speech exalts individual preference as the arbiter, the guide of life decisions. However, exalting the heart at the expense of the intellect, or intuition at the expense of wisdom, may spell either human genius or human ruin. The head without the heart may feed psychopathy; its opposite, escapism. Both may converge in narcissistic despair. Some work ought to be done, and some courses undertaken, even if there is little to be “loved” or liked about them. Some callings command that particular preferences be set aside. A sacrificial mindset? Thinking differently—and true joy and glory—demand no less.
Alma Acevedo teaches courses in applied ethics.
Text of Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford University commencement, 2005
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