Wisdom from Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs?

The passing of Steve Jobs is eliciting many tributes and commentaries about his cultural contributions. I followed his public role only from a great distance, but I have been an Apple person from the start, which means that I experience the blessings of his accomplishments on a daily basis.

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: “Follow your passion, chart your course, march to the beat of your drummer, follow your dreams 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.

Of course, talk about “being authentic” can also be a way of following the crowd these days. But there is a biblical way of thinking about authenticity that we should be giving some attention to in the present cultural climate. We evangelicals have always insisted on the importance of a “personal decision” to follow Christ. I still like the old song: “I have decided to follow Jesus . . . Though no one join me, still I will follow.” That too is authenticity.

Bertrand Russell was an outspoken unbeliever—a self-proclaimed enemy of the faith. But he also liked to say that his grandmother’s message, written in the Bible she gave to Russell in his youth, was still a motto he wanted to live by: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” Russell’s grandmother was encouraging him to be authentic. The problem was that he chose the wrong path of authenticity.

Again, when the chips are down I go with Brooks. But Steve Jobs said something at Stanford that is worth discussing, especially if we want to communicate the claims of the gospel to a generation that is open to conversations about authenticity.