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Connecting the Dots (May 2009 Commencement Address #4, Sunday)

  • Date: 05/10/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, The University of Akron
  • Cartoonist Garry Trudeau once quipped that commencement speeches "were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."1

    Frankly, some graduation advice is idealistic and out of touch.  You're encouraged to live life, search for truth, reach for the stars, and grab the gold ring.  You are instructed on what you need to do, but not necessarily on how to get there.

    Every so often, however, a commencement speech grabs national attention, as did the address by Steve Jobs, which he delivered four years ago at Stanford University.  Let me share some parts of it with you.

    As I expect most of you know, Steve Jobs, along with Steven Wozniak, started Apple computer company in his parent's garage.  Today, he is considered a leader in both the computer and entertainment industries.  He is CEO of Apple Computer and former CEO of Pixar Animation Studios.  He also is the Walt Disney Company's largest individual shareholder and a member of its Board of Directors. 

    Steve Jobs never graduated from college.  In fact, he only lasted six months at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  Having come from a working class family, he naively chose one of the country's most expensive colleges.  Then, since he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, he saw no value in continuing. 

    Even though he dropped out, he stayed around the campus for another 18 months as a drop-in, and much of what he stumbled upon turned out to be priceless later on. 

    Reed College offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the United States, so he enrolled in a calligraphy class to learn how it was done.  He learned about typefaces, and varying spaces between different combinations of letters.

    "None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life," he said in his speech at Stanford. "But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.  And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.  And since Windows just copied the Mac, it is likely that no personal computer would have them (either)..."2

    "...Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college...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," Steven said.3

    To help clarify Mr. Job's connect-the-dolts analogy:  Most of you are familiar with children's connect-the-dots activity books.  Each page has many dots with corresponding numbers.  Beginning at one, you connect each dot in numerical sequence with a straight line.  When you reach the highest number, you have a picture, and often, as it happens, you don't know what the picture will be until you near the end of the numbers.

    Steve Jobs found what he loved to do early in life and all of his dots eventually connected, albeit in a roundabout way and certainly not as he might have envisioned. 

    Jobs was only 20 when he co-founded Apple, and in just 10 years, his company grew from two employees in a garage to a $2-billion company with more than 4,000 employees.

    He goes on to say: "We had just released our finest creation - the Macintosh...and then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating..."4

    "...I didn't see it then, but 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."5

    Jobs went on to start a computer platform development company named NeXT, which specialized in the higher education and business markets, and he founded another company named Pixar.  Pixar created the world's first computer-animated feature film, "Toy Story," and is now the most successful animation studio in the world.

    And, in a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT and Jobs returned to the company he previously had founded.  His NeXT technology is responsible for the computer giant's current resurgence.

    I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple." Jobs said.  "It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it."6

    "Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love...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..."7

    About a year before his Stanford speech, another life-changing event confronted Jobs.  He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  And only after the biopsy was he informed that his cancer was extremely rare, which in this case was a good thing, because it was curable with surgery.

    "When I was 17," he said, "I read a quote that went something like: 'If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.'  It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?'  And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."8

    "...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..."9

    Last spring, I shared with our graduates the story of Randy Pausch, who was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.  He, too, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the peak of his career.  But, unlike Jobs, his prognosis was not so good, and he lived less than a year.

    Ironically, a few weeks before his diagnosis, Professor Pausch was invited to deliver a speech as part the "Last Lecture" series, in which professors were invited to talk about a topic that really matters to them and to impart their wisdom as if it were the last lecture they would ever give.

    His lecture struck a chord with many people and became a number-one best-selling book, entitled "The Last Lecture." 

    While the outcome for Pausch was very different than for Jobs, his message was similar: Have fun in whatever circumstances you live or work; boldly pursue your dreams; dare to take risks; look for the best in everyone; and try not to confuse what is urgent with what is truly important.10

    I am confident that the faculty, staff, administration and others here at The University of Akron have done their best - as you have - to equip each of you with the knowledge, skills and guidance you need to prepare for your future.  And I believe that you may find the greatest personal happiness and success if you take to heart the simple advice of Steve Jobs and Randy Pausch.

    After all, the key to doing great work includes loving what you do.  And, the only way to connect the dots to your future is to take life one dot at a time.  It will make an excellent picture.

    * * *


    1. LaFleur, Vinca and Jeff Nussbaum, "6 Ways to Make a Commencement Speech Soar," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 23, 2009, A99
    2. Jobs, Steve, Commencement Address delivered at Stanford University, June 12, 2005
    3. Jobs, Ibid
    4. Jobs, Ibid
    5. Jobs, Ibid
    6. Jobs, Ibid
    7. Jobs, Ibid
    8. Jobs, Ibid
    9. Jobs, Ibid
    10. Pausch, Randy, "The Lessons I'm Leaving Behind," Parade, April 6, 2008


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