Quality transformation: Jobs: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn is away this month. In the spirit of graduations that lie ahead in coming weeks, we reprint David’s column reflecting on one of Steve Jobs’ commencement addresses, connecting it to the stories that we tell ourselves, and the importance of sharing these stories.

As most of us know, on October 5, 2011, we lost Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple, Inc. Amid all the reports of his life and death, one of his phrases stood out to me: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” The phrase ended his June 12, 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Stanford (retrieved from Stanford Report, June 14, 2005).

In the address he told three personal stories that all led to one conclusion. He asked the graduates to live their own lives. He pointed out that they can probably earn a living doing it. It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

I am reminded of a Systems Thinking workshop led by Peter Senge and Daniel Kim that my wife, Carole, and I attended years ago. We were discussing how difficult it is to stay the course after developing a really challenging and worthy vision. Peter suggested that the research concluded that we tend to think we are either incapable or unworthy to achieve our visions. Hence, we scale them back or give up completely when we see the signs of resistance which will, of course, arise whenever a living system tries to change or be changed. I think that perhaps trying to live our own lives is like that. Although it is simple, it is also majestic. Maybe we unconsciously believe we are incapable or unworthy.

In his commencement address, Jobs helped the graduates with these obstructing forces without being explicit about it. He told his story. We can start by telling our stories…and encouraging others to tell us their stories. I first heard David Whyte read Love after Love by Derek Walcott years ago, but it has somehow stuck. It goes:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes;
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(Derek Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-1984, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986.)

We can celebrate our lives. We can then begin the rest of the journey with renewed energy toward who we are meant to be if we have not yet quite found it. On my recent sabbatical, we met with a bright, vibrant South African narrative consultant named Chené Swart who helps people do just that. She helps people create and tell their stories about who they want to be and what they want to do based on their gifts, skills, hopes, and values. We can hire Chené to help us…or can just do it ourselves (or find a community that knows us and wants to support us on our journey).

Jobs further offered:

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. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

While we are doing the looking, we need to keep our eyes, mind, and heart wide open. Maybe we need to engage in more second order learning. I am reminded of a faculty colleague who, years ago, provided this unforgettable explanation of first and second order learning. She said that we all have a file cabinet in our heads. Whenever we take in something, we put it into the proper file for future use. That is first order learning. Sometimes something comes into our brain that doesn’t fit into the file cabinet and our file cabinet “blows up.” That is second order learning. For some of us, second order learning happens occasionally. When it does, it is very painful and difficult, because it challenges our world view or, at least, a significant part of it. We are unconsciously very good at not sensing those things that would result in second order learning. Sometimes, even when we sense those inputs that are inconsistent with our world view, we consciously discount them out of hand, rather than seriously considering them. When our journey doesn’t seem to be helping us find our own, personal way, maybe we need to open up a bit more to what is going on. There is a wonderful Chinese proverb that helps me when, as usual, I am about to miss second order learning opportunities. The proverb is “Everyone is my teacher.”

Jobs also helped the graduates with his admonition to stay foolish. Recounting his bout with cancer, he said:

…almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Finally, Peter Block expands on this theme in The Answer to How is Yes (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002) as he reminds me about the ways and the courage to be foolish. Our lives are too precious to avoid being hungry and foolish.

As always, I treasure your input and your questions. This month, your homework assignment is to figure out what this has to do with Six Sigma.

2 thoughts on “Quality transformation: Jobs: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’

  1. Encouraging article. It happens often when odd situations disappoint you a lot and make you think to drop the idea or search whatever it is. But there is always a way to move in the right direction till you get what you want. So never loose heart on failures; after every night comes dawn.

    • IQBAL – Thank you for staying on the journey. We need each other. Take care!

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