Via the inimitable Mike Daisey — whose really remarkable show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is opening at the Public Theater next week (if you live in New York, do yourself a favor and go see it) — comes this bit of wisdom from Steve Jobs: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
Jobs made this remark during a commencement address he delivered at Stanford in 2005. A year earlier — as the world knows — he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and given 3-to-6 months to live. The doctors soon revised the prognosis, and of course he held on for another seven years, but for a little while there he had to sit with the knowledge that it was soon going to be over. That’s it. Poof: The End is Nigh. And the point Jobs makes in his Stanford speech is that those hours of having to face his mortality, I mean really face it, merely made concrete the creed by which he had always lived his life — the creed that Daisey posted just minutes after Jobs died.
Now: what Jobs said to those Stanford seniors wasn’t very original. “Live every day as if it were your last” is one of the hoariest commencement clichés in the book, and actually a kind of oppressive thing to say to twenty-one-year-olds who are about to go off and get desperately drunk. (I always find it a little shitty and mean when commencement speakers beat kids over the head with impossible goals and Polonius-like ideals. Where’s the commencement speaker who will admit to spending four days in his underwear eating Costco-brand cashews and Diet Dr. Pepper? Call me, Princeton!) But the very amazing and awe-inspiring and scary thing about Steve Jobs meting out this advice is … he actually appears to mean it.
That is, he actually appears to have woken up most days of his life and taken the broadest possible existential perspective. He actually appears to have been one of those rare people who kept his own death — and the death of everything, the passing of everything — firmly in mind, so that he could move from morning to night without fear.
I’m pretty sure he didn’t do this everyday. He even implies, in his Stanford speech, that he didn’t do it everyday. But he did it a lot, and from this — what to call it? this apocalyptic nerve, this acute awareness that we’re only going around once so you might as well make it count — from this came … everything. All his accomplishments. All the innovations, all the creativity, all the success. Everything he packed into his 56 years.
This is incredible to me. It’s stunning. To me, Jobs represents a photographic negative of the anxious life, since anxiety is essentially a condition in which the sort of global perspective he upheld is totally, horrifyingly eclipsed by whatever cloud of petty concerns happens to be hovering around your head that day. To me, Jobs will always be a kind of anti-anxious god.