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Lessons from Steve Jobs: How to Recover from Failure

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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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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Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

I also played Steve Job's 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford over and over since his passing. I see so much of how he thought in me. He has taught me more about technology than anyone else with all the Apple driven gadgets I have in my office, at home, and in my audio and video recording studios. By the way, I never met Steve personally. I have also failed a couple of times and I also told myself I am not going to get out of this because "I Love what I do" and one of these days I will have my Biology Teaching on-line!" Guess what, that happened February of 2009 with my Virtual Science University Website. I also see a little of Steve Jobs in me cause I saw on-line teaching since when the Inter-net started going in the early 90's. Back then, I just did not have the tools to put my teaching and my original Science Music on-line. Thanks to the technology gurus like Steve and Bill Gates I now have VSU on-line for everyone to visit. I've had over two million visits in the last 14 months. May Steve's Soul rest in PEACE! I am so thankful for this man living while I've been here on this Earth. Actually him and I are from the same generation since we were both born in 1955. I have so much to share but not enough space!

Benjamin3's picture
Special Education Teacher from Georgia

This article really hit home with me. I am a middle school special education teacher and find it so important to assure my students that sometimes failure is necessary in life. We must all learn from our mistakes and, when we fail, go back to the drawing board as Steve taught us. Our failures, as well as our successes, make us who we are. My students can get down on themselves easily and feel like they're just not smart enough or creative enough to do what they want in life. I think it's important to be able to give examples of actual people that failed and, with dedication, came back to really make something of themselves.

Daniel Alburger's picture
Daniel Alburger
High school English teacher from Baltimore

When I brought up Steve Jobs to my soccer team after a loss, one girl rolled her eyes and said "him again." I derailed what I had thought was going to be a motivational speech about getting back up after failures to find out what her problem was. "Every class has talked about him today!" she complained.

"I don't see how that is a problem, ladies. The sad reality is that sometimes in life you're known for your achievements and sometimes for your failures. The important part isn't even what others remember you for, but how you change because of your experiences."

In the classroom teachers and students do not always win. And that's OK. The key is learning from all of those experiences. Steve Jobs was an excellent example of making the best of whatever you've been given.

Chris Gleason's picture
Chris Gleason
Ninth grade English teacher from Los Angeles, California

I am grateful for Steve Jobs example of fearless determination to achieve his goals. I appreciate Mr. Brunsell's celebration of his life for it caused me to further relfect upon how I can better live and teach with a similar confidence. The time when Mr. Jobs was living on recycling bottles I believe shows a disregard for material concerns or status that is enviable and perhaps freeing. Not being afraid to fail, that is difficult, especially in today's economy. In Thomas Friedman's New York Times article "Where Have You Gone Joe Dimaggio?", Steve Jobs is celebrated as one of the few captains of industry, or leaders of any organziation, that "gets it". I can only hope to follow some of that fearless, creative spirit and transmit it to my students.

Melissa Adams's picture

Steve Job was truly an amazing man! He was such an inspiration to so many people and for so many different reasons. To some they looked up to him for his efforts to keep trying even after dropping out of college or his courage with fighting pancreatic cancer. To me he changed education! He came up with an idea in his garage that changed technology forever. He gave children the opportunity to learn in so many new and exciting ways. Even with all the downfalls that he had, he never gave up. What an inspiration he was for all people. This one mans gift and eye for something inovative, changed the way we provide education to our children. As I sit with my students and use my ipad with them, I think about the genius Steve Jobs was and how much gratitude we owe him. He has made a impact on students and the way they learn for a lifetime.

jatkins's picture
High School Librarian

I have to be honest, I've learned more about Steve Jobs since his passing than I ever knew about him before. He really was inspirational. You could really tell how much he loved what he did when you heard him speak and I think that is the real measure of his success.

Brock d'Avignon's picture
Brock d'Avignon
Real Client PBL EdTech Industrial Arts Social Sciences Teacher 7-12

Meaningful and Life-saving Project Based Learning with major CEOs, nationwide and national leaders is founded on George Lucas' Edutopian idea of presenting a problem to be solved, then all technology, mentors, money, and cooperation follows. PBL is now important to opinion leaders. My students have designed:
Central Asian TRAADE routes for prosperity, peace, and freedom with pipelines carrying water, oil, gas next to road and railways going north and south where none exists now.
Red Cross Robotic Search and Rescue Ambulances (SARA) vehicles for firefighters and DARPA Grand Challenge. Research contacts given to university students winning $2M prize.
Flood ending half-buried porthole pipelines carrying water elsewhere where needed.
Asteroid Detection Deflection Development (ADDD) solar system wide with banking collateral value to pay for it all at 6% discovery rights to title, 1/10,000th of dollar severe discount equals $1.9 Trillion in assets for California schools and colleges; 145T for US & A; more for other countries with telescopes; parcelization of 5 moons to every human with individual property title; and a Space Property-title and Asteroid Resources Company (STARCO).
New Island Creation Consortium (NICCO) pizzahedron truss structures, electro-deposition of sea mineral hulls, and Freedomaxium new country projects and open deep ocean fish-farming.
Identifying Moammar Ghaddafi's deep space rocket capability with nuclear batteries for space rock renavigation as WMD plus launch disguise, satcom interference, and satellite blinding alliances.
Resetting global economy to personally held space resources instead of oil, and achieving property title for all humans on Earth using Percentage As You Earn (PAYE) finance of houses and farms ending repossession vulnerability.
Achieving free market curative and preventative care for all as an outcome of a new charging method of percentage-of-income medical finansurance. Adding Quality Immortality (QI) percentage of income PAYEments while students decide to crack the supergene that controls aging.
Historical examples of income contingent business models in immigration of redemptioners of debt replacing indentured servitude and slavery; privateers; mountain men; old country doctors reckoning of percentages of income to take care of all; rePAYEment of college tuition with the outcome of equal opportunity to attend college while achieving the Separation of Higher Education and State in 11 years. Non-property tax based revenue cycle replacement with anywhere on the globe rePAYEment from college students to either taxpayers or Human Investors in a Career Futures Exchange.
Leg protection motorcycles.
Earthquake Preparedness-box Towers (EPT) on Wheels for all school homerooms including water bottles, MREs, rubble tools, warmth and personalized medical supplies; revision of disaster plans at schools to meet law, insurance, and civil defense shelter needs with Red Cross and sponsors, not taxes.
Creation of franchise images for Flying Saucer Pizza and Yellow Submarine Sandwich Galleys as examples of Communications English for local businesses.
Historical character relationships for screenplays The Star Spangled Banner and The Bear Flag Revolt.
Not bad for 7-12th graders some people think can only be janitors for some pocket change. Education should give something back to the businesses, community, and civic leaders that support it. Thank you George, would you like to help schools and students with licensing dealmakers and lawyers like universities have to reward intellectual achievement via property rights to all involved? Like to set up a CAFEX with me? Would you like to make a few movies about all the PBL and CBL teachers and students you've collected best examples of over the last few years? Ready when you are! Brock d'Avignon 831-512-6572

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

As hard as we might work at being effective teachers, we will not be successful in motivating all of our students to be effective learners all of the time. Be that as it may, it is a cardinal rule in teaching that it is the teacher's responsibility to do everything within his or her ability to foster a positive and supportive classroom learning environment. I always identify failure early and act on it. This includes getting evidence of student's level and abilities within the first week of class through testing and in class writing. I listen and am honest and direct my responses. I offer respect and encouragement. I listen and look with great attention. Follow up on the plan daily or each time you meet. Let the student know you are interested in her success. Congratulate her on daily successes in front of others if it's appropriate. Remind the student of his goals. Be positive, but firm.


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