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Steve Jobs: Bad Advice

Steve Jobs delivers the commencement address at Stanford University in 2005

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, has joined the list of folks reflecting on Steve Jobs’ passing. Mouw particularly considers the advice given at Standford’s 2005 graduation ceremony, which he juxtaposes with comments by a commencement address from David Brooks. (HT: John Fea) Here is a taste:

I don’t know anything much about his fundamental convictions, but there is one line that caught my attention when it first was publicized, and it is now being quoted as an enduring piece of wisdom from his lips. In his Stanford commencement address in 2005 he told the graduates: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

That’s a very different message from the one David Brooks delivered in a commencement address he gave last spring. His point was summarized in the title that the New York Times gave it when it ran it as an op-ed in May: “It’s Not About You.” Graduates leave our institutions of higher learning, Brooks said, with “the whole baby boomer theology ringing in their ears.” Commencement speakers tell them: “Followyour passion, chart your course, march to the beat of your drummer, follow yourdreams and find yourself.” All of that, Brooks argued, is “the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”

Brooks may even have had Steve Jobs’s Stanford address in mind when he said all of that. And my own evangelical convictions square nicely with Brooks’s concerns. The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to be saying, “It’s not about me” when he wrote that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And for many of us in the Reformed world, the Heidelberg Catechism puts it profoundly in its first question and answer: “My only comfort in life and in death” is “that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . . [who] makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.”

So if I have to choose, I clearly go with Brooks rather than Jobs. But it would have been nice to be able to ask Jobs what he thought about the Brooks piece. My guess is that he would have agreed with the basic point Brooks was making, but that he also would have insisted that there is something about “not living someone else’s life” that is worth emphasizing. Both Jobs and Brooks were addressing a generation of students who make much of “authenticity”: whatever you choose, make sure that you choose it, and that you are not just going along with the crowd.

Interesting thoughts (you can find the rest here). As I reflect more on Jobs’ speech, I can understand Mouw’s critique. Jobs’ perspective is certainly consistent with his apparent conversion to Buddhism. He is focused on the self, and actualizing that self. Don’t let external pressures conform you into their pattern, but be true to yourself. As Andy Crouch reminds us (see my previous post), the first part of this sounds almost Christian. We are admonished to not let the world press us into its pattern. The problem is that we are not, as Christians, supposed to simply remold ourselves as we see fit, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by the Spirit of God.

This difference does present a chance for us as Christians to clarify the differences between our faith and the others competing for the allegiance of those around us. Christianity is unique in its focus (relationship with God, rather than adherence to a set of rules) and motivation (we do this not to please ourselves or provide ourselves with reward in the present world, but to gain fulfillment by doing what we were created for: loving God). Jobs apparently never understood this. Do those around me “get it”, or do they see pleasing themselves as the end goal? I need to find ways to show the Truth in my daily life. I think this is what Brooks is trying to say. I’m not an expert on all of what Brooks may have to say, but on this point I certainly agree with him. Our life is not our own, we only “succeed” to the degree that we fulfill our purpose of delighting in the One who created us for Himself.

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