Many people misinterpret Steve Jobs’ famous phrase: “stay hungry stay foolish” as a lesson in ambition, but if you listen to the commencement speech where Jobs quotes the back cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, you’ll hear the more nuanced meaning.
He tells the story of his humble beginnings (given up for adoption to a working class family), his decision to ‘drop out’ of college (and shift to taking classes that interested him rather than were required) and his getting fired from Apple (needing to start again and take new risks rather than rest on his laurels). Though a big part of his talk was to inspire students to do what they love, the subtext is that we should never stop learning.
I feel like many people today understand the first part of the message (do what you love), but fewer people really get the second part (never stop learning).
I’m no spring chicken any more. I’ve hit what is lovingly referred to as ‘middle-age’. And because I don’t really ‘act my age’, I have lots of young friends and colleagues I hang out with. Over and over again, I hear them complain that they aren’t respected or valued as much as they want to be. I listen and bite my tongue. I don’t want to be that old timer that says, “Well in MY day, sonny, I had to work my way up the ladder like everyone else!”
But I did.
My first job after graduating with a nearly perfect GPA, honors degree and a few published academic papers was to type letters and get lattes for the CEO. I felt just as under-utilized as the young people entering the workforce today. After about 6 months of lattes, the CEO I worked with overheard a conversation I was having about my Geocities ring and that I was taking Flash and DHTML classes in my off hours and he realized that I could help the company with their website and online annual reporting. I got a small promotion and raise and…got someone else’s lattes (this time in corporate communications). Every job I ‘graduated’ to I earned a little more and got a little more responsibility. And even after owning my own business, I picked up the occasional latte. My career didn’t really ‘start’ until my mid-30’s (the previous 10 years were mostly grunt work) and, hell, I can still use a dictaphone and type a mean letter and am not above doing so to pay the bills.
I know today that I benefit from that struggle. As frustrating as it was at the time, I got to learn amazing new skills under every new boss. Creativity meant nothing without knowing how to do market research – that would give me the insights into what a customer really wanted and needed. I was fortunate to work in several research departments coming up. Understanding other stakeholders, like investors and board members gave me a whole different perspective on ‘customer’. I learned budgeting and public relations skills and sell cycles and retail – all by being the person under the person who drove that position.
And even today I remind myself that the day I stop learning and growing is the day I stop living. I’ve maybe learned 1% of what I need to in my lifetime.
Humility is a big part of staying hungry. Steve Jobs didn’t start out the CEO of Apple. He started out curious and stayed curious. He was also obsessed with perfection, quite often at the cost of profits. He never let fear rule his decisions. I often wonder if he would have been as successful with Apple if he hadn’t got fired. In getting fired, he had to get hungry again. He went out and learned new skills and industries, then brought it back to Apple where the company flourished once more.
Which leads me to one of my favorite commencement speeches ever given by David McCullough Jr. titled, “You are not special”. It may as well have been a speech to all of us. There is no lone inventor or creative genius. Even Steve Jobs had to be knocked down and rebuilt to impress us all again. The moment you become complacent or think you know it all is the moment you will lose your edge.
Stay hungry. Drop the ego and pick up the lesson. It’ll make you smarter and more creative at the end of the day.