“Just 3 Stories … No Big Deal” – Taking a Deeper Look at Steve Jobs’ Advice in His 2005 Stanford Address

The Hidden Message in Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford AddressIn 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford University, and told three main stories about his life and work. (Click here to view the 2005 Stanford Address.)  His talk has inspired many. But were there hidden messages in it? Was there deeper wisdom than most of us think?  Absolutely.  Let’s see if you agree.

But first, why this is so urgent and important? It’s because millions of people from career-changers to career-starters have been fed the line, ‘just follow your passion.’ Aside from that advice being wildly ambiguous, it’s often dangerous and misleading.

And although many people have attributed the line to Steve Jobs and his 2005 talk, the truth is Jobs himself never said the words. Not. Even. Once.

There are in fact deeper messages Steve Jobs was trying to tell us, and your career will likely only be more successful if you absorb these deeper messages.

A first clue about the deeper message is that Jobs says at the outset that he’s going to share his secrets in the shape of three stories: “Today, I want to tell you 3 stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just 3 stories.” [at 0:47 in the talk]

Actually, giving us three stories was a big deal. Jobs believed almost religiously in the rule of 3’s – the principle from rhetoric that you should communicate something in three parts. (Remember his launch of the iPhone? He said he was about to announce “three revolutionary products … an MP3 player, a phone, and an internet communicator …”. The magician’s surprise turned out to be that the three things were all in one device, the new iPhones.)

Story 1 = Passion 1: A Passion for Your Area and Learning It Deeply

On the surface, Jobs first story is about how he dropped out of Reed College. But if you dig deeper, it’s really about how he allowed his curiosity to draw him to certain subjects, and how he developed from his early days the habit of deep learning that lasted a lifetime:

“I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. [2:56] … I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example … . [3:21] I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif … about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful … artistically subtle … and I found it fascinating.” [3:49] [emphasis in bold added]

Notice that Jobs says he was following his “curiosity,” not ‘following his passion.’ There is a difference. Curiosity is very specific.

In other words, he went to classes to learn, not just cram for exams and get an A. The course on calligraphy was not just about fonts, it was about design, an area that came to dominate Jobs’ life – and lead him to many breakthroughs.

The words Jobs uses are a test for whether you have developed this same passion: interesting, curiosity, intuition, learn, beautiful, fascinating. Do you use words like these when you describe the area you’re in?

Key Message from Story 1: the first passion you need is a passion for the area you’re in, and a genuine desire to keep learning it.

Story 2 = Passion 2:  A Passion for the Processes in Your Area … especially the Collaborating and Learning from Failure

In all work, there is a process – or more accurately, processes.  Story 2, with all due respect, is often misquoted. The first key lesson in the story is in the first two lines:

“I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us … .” [5:42] [emphasis added]

The lesson is that he developed a passion and skill for collaborating. And not just collaborating in an average way. Jobs developed – from the age of 20 – a passion and habit for collaborating closely with highly talented people, experts who often had far more expertise than he did. That takes courage and confidence.

It’s that part of the process that Jobs continued to love and engage in throughout the rest of his career: he collaborated with all kinds of highly talented people, from the animators at Pixar to the designers at IDEO to his own Apple designers and programmers.

A further implicit message in this story is also found in that first quote: the better you get at what you do, the more you tend to have a passion for it.  It’s a virtuous cycle (the opposite of a vicious cycle).  Some psychologists call it a ‘cycle of accelerated returns.’  Others call it the 10-year rule, the idea that it usually takes about 10 years, through deliberate practice, to become really expert in a field.  Notice how Jobs’ and Apple’s first major success occurred after 10 years of collaborating:

“We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with 4,000 employees.” [5:50] [emphasis added]

The next part of Story 2 tells how Jobs came to value a part of the process you’ll  find in any field, especially today: learning from mistakes or failure. It’s the story of his 1985 dismissal from Apple:

“But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. [6:57] … And so I decided to start over. … it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” [7:11] [emphasis added]

To illustrate, then, the real message in this second story, consider what happens when someone doesn’t grasp the lesson. Take for example the Yoga aficionado who decides to ‘just follow her passion’ and open her own Yoga studio. If she doesn’t have or at least develop a basic passion for the process (finding clients, finding a partner, collaborating, doing the admin, doing the marketing, renting the studio, handling the finances, etc. etc.), it’s a sure bet she’ll struggle, if not fail.

Key Message from Story 2: you need passion for the process that makes up the work you do – and, in particular, collaborating and learning from failure.

Story 3 = Passion 3: A Passion for What Gives You Meaning, a Sense of Purpose or Progress and How You Help People

If you want to watch your life ignite, listen to this third story once a day for a month.  Story 3 is about the deepest kind of passion of all: developing a passion for what your life and work are really all about:

“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… [9:39]. … 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. [12:05] … 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.” [12:31] [emphasis added]

How you develop your passion in this third circle is deeply personal, but Jobs ably points to the three main things that invariably give both life and work meaning – working to achieve real progress in your field (“Don’t be trapped by dogma”), developing your own sense of purpose (listen to “your own inner voice”), and, ultimately, make your life about serving other people:

The Hidden Message in Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Address

So there you go. When you look at the 2005 speech from this perspective, the talk can serve as a powerful set of career guidelines. Ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a passion for the area you’re in, and in learning it more deeply?
  2. Do you have a passion for the process in the work, and in particular for genuine collaborating and learning from failure?
  3. Do you have the passion that comes from a sense of purpose, striving for progress, or helping people?

Jobs’ wise counsel to us is not at all some vague idea about just following a mythical, single passion. It’s about three key passions.

If you can make your way to the intersection of those three circles, that’s when you’ll almost certainly have a life and career that are both truly successful and meaningful.


(Note: A version of this article can also be found on Linkedin.)