In his 2005 commencement address, Steve Jobs told 1,800 eager students, “It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” In the wake of his recent decision to resign as Apple’s CEO, this quotation has cropped up again in news sources from The New York Times to The Huffington Post to the Tuscon Citizen. It was, and is, an unexpected statement to hear, especially from someone as successful as Jobs, and especially when you’re a freshly minted graduate (or the parent of a graduate!) ready to begin an exciting—though daunting—phase of your life.
Right now, at the start of the school year, our students are beginning an exciting (and sometimes daunting) phase in their own lives. We look at the months ahead and imagine the perfect shot in the soccer game, the science experiment that produces exactly the results we want, the genius insight that electrifies classmates or colleagues. Those are the moments we imagine. They aren’t always the moments we get.
The word setback has something to teach us. When an artist is in her studio, she takes a few steps away from her canvas so that she can see the entire composition, not just the details she has focused on. The setbacks in our life pull us away from the places where we’ve been preoccupied. The trick, then, is not to become lost in the big picture, and not to become overwhelmed by the new perspective we’re facing.
I learned that lesson at the start of my senior year. As the captain of my high school basketball team, I was full of plans for the year. All that changed in the first game of the season, when I moved to intercept a pass, slipped on the floor, and tore the ligament and cartilage in my left knee. In a moment, my season was over.
My senior year was nothing like what I expected it to be. I had great teachers and classes, including two independent study classes of my own design. Friendships deepened, and our student council took on important issues. Yes, I missed basketball terribly. I missed it in my hospital bed, and I missed it when I returned to school on crutches and in a cast. I still miss it sometimes even now. But what I learned is that you can’t rely on one way to define yourself.
We’re all going to face setbacks this year, small or large. Our work is to go forward even after we’ve been pushed back. Success doesn’t define us any more than setbacks do. We take a look at the larger pattern, push forward into an unfamiliar place, start to fill in the blank space. Look back, then move ahead. It’s all part of the big picture.
Jobs closed his Stanford speech by encouraging students to innovate, take risks, and, quoting the Whole Earth Catalog, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” While there are all kinds of foolishness that I hope our students don’t get up to, I believe that curiosity and imagination should always be a part of their lives.