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What Steve Jobs Meant When He Said “Follow Your Heart”

April 5th, 2015 · 26 comments

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What Steve Said

I opened my last book with Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Toward the end of the speech, I noted, Jobs said:

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Many people interpreted this suggestion simplistically, assuming that Jobs was telling them to follow their passion and everything would work out.

I argued in my book that this interpretation conflicted with Jobs’s own story. During the period leading up to Apple’s founding, there was no indication that Jobs felt any particular passion for technology entrepreneurship.

His company was, in many ways, a happy accident that evolved into a calling.

What, then, explains the mismatch between what Steve Jobs did and what Steve Jobs said?

Fortunately, we gain new insight into this question from Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s excellent new biography, Becoming Steve Jobs. In this book, the authors (one of whom had a long term personal relationship with Jobs) devote a full chapter to dissecting the Stanford address, taking specific aim at his “follow your heart” line.

Not only do Schlender and Tetzeli provide needed nuance to Jobs’s advice, but they also end up providing one of the more sophisticated and useful interpretations of professional passion that I’ve heard…

Beyond “Shuttered Confidence”

The authors begin by acknowledging Jobs’s word choice skirts the border of cheesy:

Without the proof of Apple’s success, these words from the speech’s final chapter could be misread as the kind of shallow cheer-leading intoned by high school valedictorians.

But they then note that Jobs’s success buys him the benefit of the doubt:

…but what gives [the words] strength and power is that they come from someone who has proved their value in a corporate setting.

So what did Jobs’s mean? In a nice turn of phrase, the authors note that Jobs learned how to “modulate the potential solipsism of ‘follow your heart’“, elaborating:

Early in [Jobs’s] career, intuition had meant a shuttered confidence in the inventions of his own brain. There was a stubborn refusal to consider the thoughts of others. By 2005 intuition had come to mean a sense of what to do that grew out of entertaining a world possibilities. He was confident enough now to listen to his team as well as his own thoughts and to acknowledge the nature of the world around him.

In other words, Jobs was not suggesting that we all have a true calling that must be unearthed before you can begin your career.

He was instead arguing that as your professional expertise and power grow, you must resist the urge to be washed along in the flow of convention. It’s then that it becomes important  to integrate your maturing intuition — in full cooperation with your expert knowledge of your field and the realities of the world around you — to steer toward something that might leave a dent in the universe.

This is likely why, in another part of the speech, Jobs describes meaningful work by noting: “like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”

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The book quotes come around the 32 minute mark in Chapter 14 of the Audible.com audio version. All emphases are my own.

26 thoughts on “What Steve Jobs Meant When He Said “Follow Your Heart”

  1. The next time I am accused of being stubborn or a bulldog, I will reply,” actually, I have a ‘shuttered confidence in the inventions of my own brain.’ ” I’m still at the stage of my goals where people will laugh at that, but I will take courage and inspiration from Steve Jobs remarks.

  2. John Seiffer says:

    I agree that the interpretation explained here is much more useful than the common one. But to say that is what he meant, sounds like some preacher twisting bible verses to make their point.

    If that’s what he really meant, he was a pretty lousy communicator.

    1. John O'Donnel says:

      I share a similar opinion. Steve jobs is dead. It’s easy to put words in his mouth now. Besides, his statement sounds clear to me: follow your heart. He was a very resolute person. If he said that, probably he meant it.

      1. Study Hacks says:

        Brent Schlender, the co-author of the cited book, knew Steve pretty well his whole life. So while he is interpreting his meaning, he’s not doing so arbitrarily or with his own agenda in mind.

    2. Oden Teahre says:

      I doubt the man that catapulted Apple into success, largely in part due to his prowess in speaking and generating excitement, and pitching sales, was a lousy communicator.

  3. Carl says:

    I love this–thank you Cal. I think the problem that comes when someone interprets, “follow your passion,” is that they get fired up, and create a massive zeal in their attitude.

    While I would not negate fire and zeal per se, in many cases it becomes deluding and overrides the more realistic nuances of an approach, and can blind a person to these margins.

  4. Alessandro says:

    I think “Follow Your Heart” is a good advice because is wrong doing a job you don’t like just because of the money or because it is easy to stay. The hard part is that is hard to find something you like that makes money, is a lot of trial and error.

    1. Camila Anderson says:

      I think it depends on the circumstances. If money is not the problem, most people would rather be doing something they love. But since it’s hard (for most of us) to conciliate making money with a career which fulfill us in such a way that we can fully express ourselves, we should look for the alternatives.

      In the same way that being good at something can bring passion, eventually, the reverse apparently works too. There is not only one way to go through life. The options are plentiful. For those (me included) who cannot afford to be doing what they love in the moment, better to stick at being good at what we’re currently doing. It’s quite obvious to think that. The danger, however, is to keep thinking like that for a long time and forgetting about what we really want to do before the life ends.

  5. Peetu Saarinen says:

    I think Jobs has a point in his words about following your own passion and not just going with the public flow. If people do not chase their dreams all we would have would be a gray mass of people who all think alike and do the same things. In my life I have always tried to follow this route of doing the thins I like doing and not the things I am told to do. It is a very inspirational blog considering the succes Jobs has had and therefor gives the words a true meaning

  6. A.I. says:

    Andrew Wiles, according to Simon Singh, became passionate about Fermat’s Last Theorem when he read about it at the age of about 10.

    It is not a natural law that people who start with a passion can’t become very good at what they do.

    I agree that it is not a good strategy to start by looking at pre-existing passions, because it starts with a false converse statement.

    People are rarely good at someting they loathe to do. This leads to the false converse statement that you should do what you like to do.

    However, negation of “doing something you loathe” simply is “doing something you don’t loathe”. That doesn’t mean you have to love it or be passionate about.

    One has to be good at it, that’s the criterion.

    As to Steve Jobs: He mentioned in his speech that he went to calligraphy classes. One could ask, what’s the use of calligraphy? He did it because he was interested in calligraphy.

    Later, he would use that knowledge to make Apple computers print pretty fonts, but he didn’t have that in mind when he learned calligraphy.

    Maybe it was just a “ra ra speech” and he didn’t mean any word of it – that’s possible.

    It reminds me of a quote by Kostolany, who knew a stock broker who was also an economics professor, who said: “Oh, you think I believe the crap I have to teach at university?”

    The Kostolany quote may or may not be true – in the face of the banking crisis of 2008 it seems to me like theories about the inherent stability of totally unregulated financial markets were kind of flawed, too.

    But then, I don’t buy into this postmodernist relativism fad.

  7. Ted says:

    Steve Job was passionate about profit maximization. If he was passionate about the products he was developing and genuinely thought they were life-enriching devices, he would have had his children use it. From an article:

    “In a Sunday article, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton said he once assumingly asked Jobs, ‘So your kids must love the iPad?’

    Jobs responded:

    ‘They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’

    Especially in Silicon Valley, there is actually a trend of tech execs and engineers who shield their kids from technology. They even send their kids to non-tech schools like the Waldorf School in Los Altos, where computers aren’t found anywhere because they only focus on hands-on learning.”

    http://nextshark.com/why-steve-jobs-didnt-let-his-kids-use-ipads-and-why-you-shouldnt-either/

    1. A.I. says:

      I agree. I wonder why so many people think that using a tablet computer at young age translates into the ability to develop such technology at adult age.

      Here in Germany, there are many advocates who believe that kindergarten children should be trained in computer use.

      A professor of psychiatry, Manfred Spitzer, has written several books warning that excessive use of digital equipment in young age can dangerously impair brain development.

      He is treating people with severe psychiatric disorders related to excessive digital use. People who were so addicted to online gaming that they stopped caring that their apartments were rat-infested from all the dirt lying around, leave alone the fact that they lost their jobs. Completely dysfunctional people.

      However, he is getting a lot of flak in the media for his theses. But then, a lot of livelihoods rely on mass use of digital media, so this may hardly be surprising.

  8. Ted says:

    Thank you for the Manfred Spitzer reference.
    As the father of a 18 month old, I know first-hand how tempting it is to get some quiet time and give my son the iPad. But I know it is lazy parenting and instinctively it feels wrong. When I see his eyes transfixed and un-blinking, I can almost sense his little brain being “re-wired” in a way that is not good for his future development.

    Time spent on those devices is time not being spent organizing and making sense out of the ocean of information, feelings, discomforts, and challenges that only hard thinking can do. Even though vast amounts of information flow through us when we read or surf the internet, it simply flows through us if not being processed. It’s like information is a river of wet cement flowing through our brain. If you don’t have someone in your brain standing knee deep in that flowing river, and laboriously grabbing handfuls of it and erecting all kinds structures and edifices, then all it does is flow through you. But if one is consistent about deep thinking and doing the work to “erect those structures” in one’s head, then when one needs to explain something, they go visit the “building” they constructed in their head and go through each room, and each floor and they can articulately and effectively explain, teach, opine on, or debate a topic to someone, because the work was done to assimilate that information. When many “buildings” are constructed it becomes a “city”. With roads and sidewalks and tunnels connecting various entities. It is a deep and rich architecture in one’s head that only deep thinking can construct. That “architecting” is painstaking and consists of one asking endless questions. Why is this so? How is this related to that? Where can I categorize this piece of information? Culling misinformation. Getting at the essence of something. Finding its boundaries. Creating relationships, severing ones when necessary. The worker in the brain is both the high level architect and the low level bricklayer. Constantly switching between the macro and the micro. Creating the scaffolding and support structure necessary to create the structure itself, traversing the scaffolding up and down, left and right, developing the structure.

    I love all the examples Cal provides of thinkers doing this work. Also pointing out where we can do this work: While taking a walk in nature, commuting, writing onto a notepad and a pen (Cal’s Notebook Method helped earn me a 4.0 GPA during my graduate school studies, thanks Cal!!).

  9. Naomi Teeter says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight on Steve Jobs’ speech! Regardless of what was really meant by any of it, he was an inspiration to many. His life’s work sparked a desire in many other lives. And that’s all that really matters.

  10. Adam Thomas says:

    He changed the world.

    Through that he picked up some lessons on how to manage himself, his expecations, and his beliefs.

    You don’t get that if you don’t put in the work to get the context of such things. Thanks for this post

  11. Enzo says:

    I find your ideas interesting, but hard

    I fell into my current field somewhat by chance — although I was planning to study another topic, a professor involved in communication systems research had a job opening for an undergraduate research assistant, and that set me on the path I’m still on, a Ph.D. and decade later.

    From the outset, I’ve had strong intuition in the topic — enough to do reasonably well. But I’ve never felt much natural curiosity or interest in this area, and I find myself unable to generate it. I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life now hoping that it will get better, that I can cultivate a genuine interest, but I’ve seen no signs to suggest it will happen.

    At what point do you concede that you cannot learn to enjoy something, or do you just keep trying?

  12. Enzo says:

    Sorry, I meant to say some of these ideas are hard to reconcile to my own experience to date.

  13. Shannon says:

    I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You and thought of you when I saw this:
    http://40.media.tumblr.com/ebb3bdfa3d582b10f6c6339520d20ba5/tumblr_nnnfv9a1Gx1qz6f4bo1_1280.jpg

    1. Shannon says:

      (If you’re hesitant to click on the link, it’s a joke about “following your bliss” from the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)

  14. Fabrice says:

    Premise:

    “If you want to see further, stand up on the shoulders’ giants” by Isaac Newton

    Hence, here are two living giants in the business world:

    1) Buffett says something else entirely.

    ““Having passion for something is far from an automatic guarantee of success, but I think it helps,” said Buffett. “It’s hard to imagine very many athletes succeeding without a passion for their sport, although obviously many who are equally passionate fall on their face.”

    Full article on:

    http://www.warrenbuffett.com/scott-adams-warren-buffett-disagree-on-passion/

    2) Branson: ‘You need passion and energy to create a truly successful business’

    Type on google this headline and you’ll find the article!!

    Hence, 1 + 1 = 2 not 3 or 4 or 10, always 2!!

    In other words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” by Leonardo da Vinci

    Best regards.

    Fabrice

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