The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

Steve Jobs' bad career advice isn't as bad as it sounds

In 2005, Steve Jobs told college grads to never settle. Was this good or bad advice?
In 2005, Steve Jobs told college grads to never settle. Was this good or bad advice?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Steve Jobs gave a now nearly legendary commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 that has become, for many, the Gettysburg Address of commencement speeches. It's generally regarded as inspiring and direct, if a bit lacking in deep insight. But that's before you read between the lines.

A lot of times, the conversation zeroes in on a core message. As Jobs put it:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

Jobs' encouraging words have set off a debate in the blogosphere, summarized at Forbes by Timothy Lee:

Robin Hanson, Megan McArdle, and Will Wilkinson all think Steve Jobs gave bad advice to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University. They think Jobs’s advice to follow your heart and “never settle” on a career you don’t love had more to do with Jobs’s own extraordinary talent and good fortune than the circumstances of the average person. I think they’re right that Jobs’s advice isn’t good advice for everyone, but it’s a message that unusually-talented 22-year-olds ought to hear.

Lee dissents by arguing that when you're young, it makes sense to accept some risk and follow Jobs' advice. The other side's counterpoint is, basically, "You're not Steve Jobs." 

Here's McArdle, applying the analysis to her own profession:

I try to be pretty frank with them about careers in journalism: there are a lot of people who want to be journalists, and a shrinking number of well-paid steady jobs.  Usually, what I tell them next is that it's not a tragedy if they don't do what they thought they wanted to do at 22; that they have more time than they think to figure out "what they want to do with the rest of their lives"; and that the world outside of school and words is more interesting than they probably suspect. That they should be prepared to take the risks involved in pursuing this career, but also to cut their losses.

I think this is rather restrictive. Where journalism is concerned, there are plenty of options, if you don't succeed in getting hired by the New York Times or securing some other "well-paid, steady" work. In fact, you might be better off accepting that you'll have to piece a "job" together — some blogging, some editing, some uncredited work, magazines, newspapers — rather than bailing out and taking a job that's more predictable.

There are many more types of jobs in journalism now than when I started out. Gawker Media and the Huffington Post didn't exist — but I wound up writing for both. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had been around for decades. I wrote for them, too.

For graduates coming to the profession, the important thing is to keep an open mind. You might not end up on the cop beat or interviewing politicians. But you might get to develop multimedia storytelling and manage a magazine's social media presence. Journalism went through a period where it didn't really change all that much. But now it's changing more than it ever has.

A bigger problem with this way of looking at the world as necessarily restricted to the superachievers and everyone else is that it tends to set off the status-o-meter. As Robin Hanson writes:

[D]oing 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.

Unless you don't care about your status, in which case you don't follow the strategy, because you know it's…well, stupid. Status-seeking has as its end...status. Not satisfaction in doing great work.

This is actually a significant challenge to way we live our professional lives now. Business culture has become so enamored of home-run-hitting ways that's its forgotten how to bat for an average and be content to play a role on a successful team. "Settling" has come to mean "not getting rich" or "not being the CEO" or "not being the one who stops conversation when he walks into a room."

Jobs wasn't talking about that. He was talking about having work that keeps you in a satisfying flow. Deep down, he was insisting that work have a spiritual aspect, in the sense that it nourishes your soul.

Once you find this, the challenge is then to construct your life in such a way that you can afford it.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.