Steve Jobs's 2005 Stanford commencement speech was already widely cited before his death — now that he's died, it's shaping up to be one of the most famous graduation speeches in recent memory, second perhaps to David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" address at Kenyon. I graduated from Stanford in 2005, and I got in touch with some of my classmates for their reactions on the speech, then and now.
College students are full of irony and disaffection, and Stanford actively encourages its graduates not to take graduation seriously — instead of marching in to "Pomp and Circumstance," you do something called the "wacky walk" which involves elaborate costumes and acting silly. This means I sat through Jobs's speech wearing a pair of wings. Several of my friends were wearing hip-waders and carrying butterfly nets. We were, like graduates everywhere, planning to get drunk pretty soon. So we were primed to shrug off whatever Jobs said. But even under these less-than-ideal circumstances, we remembered the fifteen-minute speech that famously closed with the lines, "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish" — so much so that every single person I contacted for this article responded, most within two hours, and from as far away as Guatemala.
Nicholas Casey, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, gives voice to the speech's influence:
[At the time] I was thinking about how hot it was, how dehydrated and hungover I was and how I was going to get a flyfishing-wader's costume back to the biology department I'd swiped for the wacky walk without being found out. But later, by this I mean several months later, I began seeing people posting it on YouTube, people that weren't even from Stanford. Years later it was still rounds, getting deep into the Silicon Valley lore — a world with a lot of smart minds but few good orators. I hadn't known it at the time, but I was watching a famous speech. Last night a friend from Mexico posted that speech with Spanish subtitles and another friend, from Colombia, updated his status "stay hungry, stay foolish."
Lots of my classmates mentioned how surprising the speech was, given that it began with Jobs's story of dropping out of college. Says Greg Wayne, now a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at Columbia, "For all of us, fervently planning and designing and angling, it was a surprise to hear Steve Jobs tell us that it's impossible to plan our futures. This person, a college dropout who had taken a calligraphy course and eaten with the Hare Krishnas, had come to design the first mass market graphical computer, grow a major computer animation studio, make Unix user-friendly, put tablet computers in our pockets." Zubin Madon notes that Jobs "was willing to tell a story to a bunch of graduates about how their degree wasn't going to make them great, and he did it very directly and effectively." He remembers that the speech made him think "oh god, I have to do shit" rather than "yes I can do shit" — a call to action rather than a comforting reassurance.
For some, Jobs's speech made a personal impression. Says Marisa Macias, now a Ph.D. student in physical anthropology at Duke,
At the time, I was working at a job I didn't particularly like, in order to make some money and apply to graduate school. I had been universally rejected the first time around, and I had been feeling pretty terrible about it. He urged us to stay hungry and stay foolish. I tried to remember how he urged us not to settle — I kept applying until I was accepted. When I finally made it to graduate school, I made it my mission to stay hungry and stay foolish.
Not everyone was as impressed. Jenny Zhang, now a writer and Jezebel contributor, says, "I just remember feeling sad about his final take-away message about 'staying foolish,' because while I really believe in that and really believe that people should hear it, it just seemed like most people in the world are never going to be lucky enough to both find what they love and be able to make a living doing it." Another classmate of mine, whom I'll call S, said,
Now as I get farther and farther into a career path that has nothing to do with music, I constantly think about how I wish I could make a living being a musician and purely have used my passion for it to go down that path. But it's not that simple.
My memories of the speech, too, were somewhat mixed. One of the last times I heard Jobs mentioned before his death was at a panel titled "Are Men Finished?," during which one of the panelists used Jobs as an argument that despite women's increasing presence in higher education, men are still on top — implicitly because they can just drop out and innovate without any help. Even before then, I'd come to think of Jobs's speech as a repudiation of education in favor of a kind of lone-wolf model, one which ignored the luck one needs to succeed alone, and the invisible support and privilege that supposedly "lone" wolves often have. Reading it again today, though, I realized that Jobs wasn't telling us to be like him — he was telling us to be like us. He didn't advise us to drop out of school — instead he said,
[Y]ou have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
Jobs was talking to a group of people who were already extraordinarily privileged in a lot of ways, and he wasn't telling us to use that privilege wisely (which we'd heard) or justly (which we'd also heard, though we could always stand to hear it again), but to use it idiosyncratically, to use it in ways unique to us and what we believed in. This may be an imprudent and even a selfish message, but it's also one that opens up limitless possibility — "do things," Jobs was implying, "that I can't even imagine." This sense of limitlessness may well be Jobs's legacy. As S says, "I think his speech lacked a bit of practicality. But it's precisely that deficiency that enabled him to be the technological visionary he was. And for that loss, I am sad."
Steve Jobs's 2005 Stanford Commencement Address [Christian Science Monitor]