With the media frenzy surrounding the death of Steve Jobs, I have been contemplating life and death.
They are playing clips in heavy rotation on TV and radio from his commencement speech at Stanford a few years ago, after he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and had already had a liver transplant. He must have known he didn’t have much more time, and he told the graduates something like this:
“Death is an important part of life, because it clears away the old to make way for the new. You are new today, but don’t forget that someday you’ll be old, and death will come to clear you away. Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Whatever you do, make sure you do what you love.”
I’ve heard this advice in various forms from various people my whole life, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s not the way the world works. It’s that “do what you love” thing that has caused an entire generation to believe they (we) are special, and that the world owes them (us) a living, that we are entitled to experiment all our lives, try this career, sample that lifestyle, and somehow everything will work out.
After many years of study, I can tell you that everything does not necessarily work out. Sometimes you lose your job, your wife, even your home. Sometimes there are powerful reasons why you have to stay in a dead-end job — for example, you need the paycheck, you have responsibilities, people who depend on you for food and health care. You “live someone else’s life” because that someone supplies the paycheck, and no matter how difficult or demeaning the work may be, you suck it up, because you have to. You don’t go chasing dreams, because you have to survive.
Here’s how I think life works: You roll the dice, and you see what happens. Whatever happens, you have to deal with it. You might become a billionaire, like Steve Jobs, or you might lose your shirt. The good news is you can roll the dice as many times as you want, chase various dreams, take many lovers, try different vocations. The bad news is, each roll takes something out of you: your money, your time, your heart. There’s no hard limit, but after a certain number of rolls, you will run out of resources to roll again. You may not have any more money, or enough time. In my case, I don’t have the heart any more.
I went through many years of confusion and denial about this, because I believed that if I followed my dreams, things would work out, and in that context it didn’t make sense that things weren’t working out, at least not the way I’d hoped. Now I know that life happens the way it happens, and you can bend the arc a little bit, but you can’t make it turn out exactly the way you envisioned it. Steve Jobs took a bunch of technology that had been invented by others, packaged it attractively and dropped it into a market that was ripe to take off. It was probably difficult for him, 25 years later, to think back and see it happening any other way, but of course it might have happened differently. How many millions were following their dreams at that same moment in time, and how many of them achieved phenomenal success?
Not very freakin’ many.
We don’t want to admit it, because we want to put Steve Jobs up on a pedestal and believe that he represents the inevitable result of perseverance, hard work, and doing what we love. If he can do it, so can we, because that’s the way it works, right? The more likely truth is that he was in the right place at the right time, and along with the love and the hard work and the perseverance, he was damned lucky.
The funny thing is, when I try to imagine what I would do with my life if I had it to do over, I think I would take pretty much the same path. I’d like to think I’d do it better, make better decisions at the important junctures, but maybe that’s just the experience talking, experience I wouldn’t have if I were really “starting over.” Maybe I’d be luckier the second time around, and maybe not. But if I had a second chance at my life, I guess that’s what I’d do: Do it over.