Professional Learning

Lessons from Steve Jobs: How to Recover from Failure

How failures contributed to successes

October 7, 2011

When I heard the news about Steve Jobs' passing, it never crossed my mind to write about him. It is tragic when someone's life is cut so short. But I didn't know him; I only know his public life. I do admire people that persevere, people that are dedicated, passionate and live life fully. But I am not into hero-worshipping or canonizing industry titans. I liked the Mac vs. PC commercials, but I really never got deeply committed to either side. I have a Mac and an iPad, but I also have an Android powered smartphone. I loved my Apple II when I was a kid -- even though I burned out the motherboard during a 14-hour Bard's Tale marathon. But I hated my Mac in the early 90s, probably because all of the cool games were on a PC.

Yesterday morning when I re-read Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement address, it stuck. I found myself thinking about it quite often throughout the day.

By almost every measure, Steve Jobs was incredibly successful. He was a visionary who defined the way we interact with computers (think GUI). He revolutionized the way we enjoy music, how we communicate with each other and how we consume media. Under his leadership, Apple became the technology trendsetter.

He was also a college dropout. He did continue to take courses that interested him, but with no thought to practicality. For a time, he crashed on friends' floors and scavenged glass bottles for refund money to buy food. By those measures, he was a failure. He was also fired from the company that he started -- a spectacular fail.

These were not small failures. In his commencement address to Stanford, he had this to say about being fired from Apple: "I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down -- that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me."

What would have happened if he hadn't dropped out of college? According to him, it is very likely that he would not have "dropped in" to the calligraphy class that shaped his view of design. Can you imagine an iPad with a black screen, a flashing cursor and greenish-yellow text? (If you are over 35, you know what I am talking about!) Perhaps his college degree would have led to a career, instead of tinkering in a garage.

What would have happened if Apple did not fire him in 1985? As he told the Stanford Class of '05:

"I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me -- I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

"I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

After Apple, Steve Jobs started NeXT and purchased Pixar. His distaste for the bureaucratic corporate culture at Apple in the early '80's led to a more open and progressive culture in his new ventures. NeXT did not have commercial success, but had a broad impact on the computer industry. Pixar revolutionized computer animation. Ten years after Jobs was fired, Apple purchased NeXT. Four years later, he was back at the helm as CEO. If he hadn't left Apple, it is quite possible that the company would not have become the icon that it is today.

Seth Godin published A Eulogy of Action and asked what we will do with the technology that Steve Jobs has given us. Edutopia's Elana Leoni gave us 10 great suggestions for how educators could answer Godin. But in his address to Stanford, Steve Jobs pushed us to do more.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Part of Edutopia's Mission and Vision is "growing a movement of change agents who share best practices and professional development to bring innovation to education and improve student achievement."

Those change agents are us -- members of the Edutopia community -- readers, bloggers, contributors, and staff. The educational vision that we strive for is not easy to reach. We won't get there if we avoid failure. Like Steve Jobs, let us not be defined by our failures, but how we recover from those failures.

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