Steve Jobs' death yesterday unloosed a torrent of well-deserved encomia to the man and his genius. Jobs' abundant talents as an engineer, designer, and capitalist are beyond dispute. But did he give good advice?
Ever since Jobs stepped down as Apple CEO, the video of his 2005 graduation address at Stanford has been in wide circulation and has been unavoidable since yesterday. It's a nice enough sermon. It's the usual litany of American banalities about being yourself and chasing your dreams and never ever ever settling for anything less than a universe bent and hammered into the shape dictated by your utterly unique authentic will. It's more or less the message the lithesome young contestants of "So You Think You Can Dance?" weekly impart to their fans in TV-land because they can't think of anything else to say.
Robin Hanson argues that Jobs' exhortation to "never settle" is a sort of status-signalling brag, and I think he's right.
Now try to imagine a world where everyone actually tried to follow this advice. And notice that we have an awful lot of things that need doing which are unlikely to be anyone’s dream job. So a few folks would be really happy, but most everyone else wouldn’t stay long on any job, and most stuff would get done pretty badly. Not a pretty scenario.
Now notice: doing what you love, and never settling until you find it, is a costly signal of your career prospects. Since following this advice tends to go better for really capable people, they pay a smaller price for following it. So endorsing this strategy in a way that makes you more likely to follow it is a way to signal your status.
As an undergrad I was an art major. Frankly, few of my fellow art majors were talented enough to make a living at it, even after four (or more!) years of training. Sure they loved art, but in the immortal words of Tina Turner, "What's love got to do with it?" "Find what you love and never settle for less" is an excellent recipe for frustration and poverty. "Reconcile yourself to the limits of your talent and temperament and find the most satisfactory compromise between what you love to do and what you need to do feed your children" is rather less stirring, but it's much better advice.
Steve Jobs' gorgeous gadgets have no doubt helped some do what they love, and better. But mostly iStuff is so beloved because it offers such attractively pleasant diversion from the disappointment of having settled of necessity on lives we do not thoroughly love. To whom is watching Iron Man 2 on an iPad alone not settling?
For my part, I intend to be the dickens out of myself and chase my dreams like a starved coyote chases a vole because I'm so awesome there's practically no chance this won't turn out spectacularly well. Which is why I write blog posts for very small amounts of money in Iowa.
[Photo credit: krossbow]