Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories. The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I quit. So why did I drop out? It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption.
She felt very strongly that college graduates should adopt me, so everything was set for me to be adopted by a lawyer and his wife at birth. Except that when I popped out, they decided at the last minute that they wanted a girl. So my parents, on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking, we’ve got an unexpected baby boy. Do you want him? They said, of course. My biological mother found out later that my mother had never graduated from college, and my father had never graduated from high school.
She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised I would attend college. This was the start of my life. And 17 years later, I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford. And all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or how college would help me figure it out.
And here I was, spending all the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out okay. It was pretty scary then, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting. It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms.
I returned Coke bottles for the five-cent deposits to buy food with. And I would walk seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition became priceless later on. Let me give you one example. Reed College offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster and every label on every drawer was beautifully hand calligraphed.
Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the regular classes, I took a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, and about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, and artistically subtle in a way science can’t capture. And I found it fascinating. None of this had hope of any practical application in my life.
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 college course, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, no personal computer would likely have them.
If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on that calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the excellent typography they do. Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. It was very, very clear looking backward ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them by looking backward. 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 because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference. My second story is about love and loss. 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 ten years, Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We just released our finest creation, the Mac and the Mac.
A year earlier, I had just turned 30 and 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, and so at 30, I was out and very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone and devastating.
I didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I’d let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down, that I had dropped the baton as it passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley, 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. I’d been rejected but still in love, so I decided to start over.
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 success 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. During the next five years, I started a company named Next, another company called Pixar, and fell in love with a fantastic woman who would become my wife.
Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought Next, and I returned to Apple. The technology we developed at Next is at the heart of Apple’s current Renaissance, and Lorene and I have a wonderful family together. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful-tasting medicine, but the patient needed it.
Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick. Stay 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, which is as accurate for work as it is for your lovers. Your work will 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 have not found it, keep looking and don’t settle.
As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it, and like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking, don’t settle. My third story is about death. When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like this, 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’ve 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.
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 because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things fall away in the face of death leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you will die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. No one wants to die.
Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there, yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, which is as it should be because death is likely the best invention of life. It’s 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’s pretty accurate. 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 different opinions drown out your inner voice; most importantly, dare to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Stay hungry, stay foolish.