On a sunny California morning in June 2005, my friends and I ran into the Stanford stadium for graduation. As part of the university’s irreverent “wacky walk,” we’d decorated our regalia with green inner tubes, floppy sombreros, and Mardi Gras beads. On the grass, we waved to our parents, brandished squirt guns, and batted beach balls around.
We were ready to be proud of finishing college and stepping out into adulthood. We were ready to celebrate our accomplishment—the first, we believed, of many to come. We were ready to hear about the great future that lay ahead.
We were not ready for Steve Jobs’s speech.
Jobs was not a rousing orator. He looked nervous as he approached the podium. As he spoke, though, his voice gained the strength of someone who knows that what he’s saying is both true and very important. And something unusual happened: we all started paying attention.
We still are. Six years later, those of us in the stadium that morning still talk about what he said. Jobs, who stepped down as Apple’s CEO in August, passed away Oct. 5. Within minutes of both announcements, my Facebook newsfeed lit up with videos of the speech and comments posted by fellow alums.
Until recently, I thought that his speech resonated uniquely with my class. But when I reread it, I realized that it might have even more to say to students today, and to their families. What made Jobs’s speech so unusual, and so lasting, is that at a moment when everyone wanted to talk about success, he told us about failure. Or at least he told us about experiences we’d normally call failures. He failed an awful lot, and not in small ways.
But what’s interesting is what Jobs did with those failures. He learned from them, and he used them to make himself better. He audited calligraphy classes that became the basis of Apple’s fonts. After getting fired from Apple, he tried again—and changed animation history with a company called Pixar. And he returned to lead Apple to enough successes that he’s honored among the most innovative leaders of our time.
Days after his death, perhaps the most poignant passage to hear again is about his cancer diagnosis:
“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 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.”
What I learned that day, and in the years after graduation, is that contrary to what we’re often told, it’s not just OK to fail. It’s essential. If we’re too risk-averse on the early, little things, we won’t get better. And not learning those lessons—about what we love, and about how to do it well—can keep us from succeeding on big things later.
I never met Steve Jobs. He didn’t know who I was. But I’ll always be grateful to him for pointing out that we shouldn’t necessarily aspire to constant success. Failure can be an opportunity in disguise, freeing us to pursue what really matters. It teaches us how to follow what we love, and how to do it better.
As Jobs told us, stay hungry. Stay foolish. Take risks. Fail often. If we do that, we’ll live meaningful lives. And like Jobs, we might change the world—one failure at a time.