Steve Jobs and I were precisely the same age, born within a few weeks of each other, on different sides of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and, as it would turn out, into vastly different worlds and cultures.
I met him—and his partner Steve Wozniak—on various occasions during the early years of Apple, as Jobs and I had a mutual friend with whom he attended Reed College, in Portland. The digital world didn’t much interest me. In graduate school, I refused to use a personal computer and I pounded out all my papers and articles on a manual Underwood Standard made in the 1930s. I was living my life in opposition to the so-called Apple revolution.
I lost the digital battle, of course. I resisted as long as I could, but by the 1990s I began working on my first Apple Macintosh. Much of my life today—and even more of my family’s—revolves around technological apparati in which Jobs and his colleagues at Apple had a hand in creating.
A little more than six years ago, in June of 2005, I was diagnosed with a very advanced and aggressive form of colon cancer. A short time later, during my early and difficult treatments with radiation and chemotherapy, someone sent me a copy of Jobs’ now legendary commencement speech at Stanford University, which he delivered on June 12, 2005, precisely two days before my diagnosis.
Timing is everything. Very suddenly, Jobs interested me in a way that he hadn’t when we were younger. Our once seemingly disparate universes had converged.
Jobs’ speech was broken into three short “stories,” as he called them, a trio of parables for living in the modern world. In the first he talked about his early foray at Reed College. His second story focused on his much publicized firing by Apple in 1985, when he was only 30 years old.
But the part in the commencement speech that interested me most, of course, was his public declaration that a year earlier he had been diagnosed with cancer and that his doctors originally told him it was both “incurable” and that he had “no longer than three to six months” to live.
His cancer journey seemingly took a radically different course than my own. According to his third fable, his oncologists performed a biopsy on the day of his diagnosis and discovered that he had a “very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery.” His encounter with his own mortality had lasted less than a day. “I’m fine now,” he told the students with apparent confidence. “This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades.”
Steve Jobs was a man of big dreams and colossal visions. I have no idea what his actual diagnosis was, the precise details that make all the difference. Perhaps he needed a sense of a full “cure” in order to continue pursuing those grand dreams.
But for me, my dance with cancer has led me not to gaze too far into future—the luxury of contemplating “a few more decades.” It has forced me to live in the moment, the here and now, to appreciate the gift of the present.
If I could have added a footnote to his speech at Stanford, it would have been to remind students that the moment is all we have. It is all any of us have.
That said, Jobs clearly understood the chronological—and biological—parameters of our lives.
“Your time is limited,” he asserted, “so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
He concluded by reminding students of an exhortation he had read on the back of the last Whole Earth Catalog in the mid-1970s: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
What a wonderful thing to tell young people on the verge of going off into the world. From this point on, it should be boldly emblazoned on all Apple products: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Words to live by, certainly. And, as it turns out, words to die by as well.
Santa Cruz writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn’s most recent book is The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind her Relentless Quest for Power (St. Martin’s).