I read Steve Jobs’ commencement speech tonight to the rhythm of my youngest’s laps in the YMCA pool. How a propos to his legacy that as soon as I’d finished it, from the bleachers on the observation deck, I immediately sent the link, via email and text message, from my iphone to my two older kids, asking them to please please promise to read it. (I try to limit myself to sending them only the things that I really want them to read, knowing full well that if I send too much it becomes like that cartoon of “what man says vs. what dog hears”…bla bla bla bla bla...)
Anyway….back to the pool. As she pushed herself, little as she is but so gloriously strong, arms reaching, nine-year-old body striving to reach that goal, I mused wistfully on how simple life is when its demands are clear and defined and measurable. How easy it is to parent her, to support her and love her, to push her ever so gently to find her passion and to meet the endless potential and possibility that she, like all children, possesses. If only the map were always so free of roadblocks and detours as it is now, with her.
Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” They do, always, connect that is. The patterns are not always easy to decipher, even in retrospect, but they are there.
As parents we watch our children and believe fervently that we see the dots crystallizing and the connections forming in their lives before our very eyes. We try to corral them and steer them. With all the best intentions, like the swim coach who clutches the stopwatch and shouts to the swimmers to keep going, faster, stronger, we push them to succeed.
Back to that speech in which, despite the relatively few words of his address, he describes the incredible difficulties he faced even from the womb, through adolescence, career victories and setbacks, the specter of death. No wonder, we think, knowing that overcoming obstacles makes one strong as steel. Follow your heart. Don’t waste time. Be courageous and hungry and take risks. Such great advice, the best advice and the only advice to give.
The simplicity of first strokes is lovely and comforting… now fast forward to the confusion and angst-ridden challenges of adolescence. When the dark clouds fill their sensitive souls we attempt to calm them but at the same time remain stoic enough so that they don’t melt, nudging them over one hurdle so that they can gather their strength for the next.
How difficult it is to demand strength of those we love when it is our instinct to protect, to coddle, to alleviate the pain and brush away the challenges before them. We see the horizon, we know what is ahead and it is part of our responsibility to at least attempt to prepare them for the sorrows as well as the joys, the pain as well as the pleasure.
But wait…can we, really? Do our words or those of Steve Jobs make a difference, or is life simply something that must be lived in order to understand? We give them wings so they can fly, I heard many times when my oldest went off to find his way. Roots and wings. Many analogies of little birds flailing and falling, but eventually figuring out how to fly.
Perhaps the most poignant part of the speech, especially given the irony that at the point it was given Steve Jobs believed he’d beaten the cancer which would eventually kill him, was this:
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.
I love that: You are already naked. Yet it’s a message that few can grasp until they’ve already felt the stab of loss and failure which is, of course, intrinsic to those dots connecting, always connecting, in our lives.
Anyway, I hope they read his speech. We should all read it. And maybe since it came from him it will somehow puff up those wings.