Oswald Letter

What’s the right thing to say?

by Dan Oswald

Last week I took my second child—and my only daughter, which is a significant distinction for a father—to college for her freshman year. I knew it would be an emotional time for her, her mother, and me. And I wanted to offer some sage advice as I left her behind in her new dorm room, something that would make a lasting impression and might serve to guide her as she embarked on her college career.

As I searched for the right thing to say—the right advice to give—I consulted a number of my usual sources and settled on Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the Stanford University class of 2005. Figuring that an address made to a group of graduating collegians might contain some advice appropriate for an incoming freshman, I reread the speech for the first time in years.

I had kept that speech for a reason. It’s really well-written and contains great advice not just for the Stanford graduating class but for all of us. I suggest you read the entire speech yourself, but here are a few things Jobs said that really struck me.

Connecting the dots

Jobs makes the point that you really don’t know how you will use what you have learned in life, but it’s important to be able to connect the dots when the opportunity arises. He says, “It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, 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.”

It’s not about what you know or what you learn; it’s about the application of that knowledge. I know a lot of really smart people who struggle with this. Have you ever noticed that raw intelligence isn’t the benchmark for great employees? If it was, we’d just give everybody an IQ test and hire those who get the highest scores. Life doesn’t work that way. You want bright, talented people who can connect the dots. People who know how to apply what they’ve learned to achieve something that will make a difference in business and in life.

Love and loss

Jobs claims he was lucky in that he found what he “loved to do early in life.” He cofounded Apple when he was just 20 years old and, with his partner, built it into a $2 billion company with more than 4,000 employees in just 10 years. But then something traumatic happened—Jobs was fired from the company he helped start. He said this about the experience, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.”

Jobs could have given up and walked away. He certainly had enough money. But instead he took his love for business and technology and founded two new companies. One was sold to Apple and ultimately led to Jobs’ return to the company he cofounded. The other was Pixar, which went on to become the world’s most successful animation studio.

Jobs’ lesson from being fired? “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. . . . 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.”

What do you really want to do today?

Jobs told the Stanford graduates, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Jobs implored the graduates to follow their hearts. Great advice for all of us. Too often people end up living someone else’s life. Maybe parents choose a career for their child. The child, unwilling to disappoint them, pursues the career despite her lack of real interest in the work. Maybe a student gets a degree in a certain discipline, heads down a career path, and never looks back, figuring his fate is already sealed. Or maybe a person has achieved a certain degree of success—a job with good pay and a nice title—and can’t imagine starting over despite her unhappiness with the work.

Jobs’ message to these people? “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. . . . Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” Are you living someone else’s life? Have you followed your heart?

You can probably see that there are a number of things from Jobs’ address I could have passed on to Aly as she embarked on this next stage of her life. I could have told her that not everything is going to make sense at the time but that someday she’ll be able to connect the dots. I could have told her to spend the next four years discovering what she really loves to do. I could have told her to follow her heart and intuition—that they would guide her to true happiness.

But I didn’t tell her any of those things. I just told her I love her. I hope it was enough.

1 thought on “What’s the right thing to say?”

  1. I was touched by this entry. We “delivered” our daughter to Xavier University 10 years ago, and in the long run I did the same thing: condensed it to “I love you” and waited for her to grow into the person she’d craft herself to be. Outstanding results, as I’m sure Aly will have, too. Thanks!

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