Since his death, a quote from Steve Jobs' famous graduation address to Stanford in 2005 has been flying around the Internet:
"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 other's 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. 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."
These are inspiring words, especially coming from a young man who at the height of his creative powers knew that he had only a few years to live. How many of us would be so gracious and expansive as we face untimely death? These words can bring energy and optimism to those who feel limited or unworthy. And yet, ironically, these words can also lead to the opposite results -- stress, damaged relationships, unhappiness and resentment.
How can a message about resisting dogma, trusting intuition and finding your passion ever cause damage? Aren't these core spiritual teachings that we should all pursue, leading inevitably to happier, more fulfilled lives? Well, like all messages, it depends on who's listening.
As I wrote in "The Allure of Narcissistic Spirituality" we are comprised of two essential parts: ego and spirit. Spirit is the flow of timeless consciousness that animates our bodies and connects us to everything. It is our true nature as manifestations of God. Ego is the "software" implanted in us to ensure survival, constantly scanning for threats and devising solutions for safety. While ego is fundamentally good, everything that ails us as a species comes from the ego's attempt to stage a coup; ego insists that it is our highest function, even turning spirituality into a show of specialness and superiority.
With understanding of this dynamic, we can hear Jobs' message in two radically different ways. Here is how spirit may hear it:
"Like all physical life, you have incarnated for a sacred purpose and therefore every moment is an opportunity to experience this truth. While the intellect will try to tell you that thinking is the highest form of knowing, seeking to control you with its constructs, remember that all opinions (including yours) are the ego's voice -- its need to be right and to control others in order to feel safe. I can see through this tactic, though, and am your guide. You already know the truth of your existence, but are often blocked by the fear of rejection or judgment. The challenge of your life is to push through this uncertainty with the faith that you are more than this. You can find me when you courageously commit to opening your heart and trusting your intuition. All else is a pale reflection that has been created by your fears, while all joy comes from the commitment to love. When you do not live in love, you settle for that which is illusory and therefore unsatisfying."
Now, here is how Jobs' message may be heard by the fearful ego:
"The future holds my promise of happiness and success. Life is too short to waste on anything that does not move me in that direction. Other people (being small-minded or jealous) will want to keep me from this goal and will try to constrain me within their limiting rules, or smother me with their negativity. I will not let them, because I have a passionate heart and uncommon intuition (unlike them). I was meant for something special, and there is something out there that I am meant to do and will love doing. Once I find it, my life will flow. Everything else is secondary to this vision, so I will not settle for a small life. In this recognition I am deeply spiritual."
Not so beautiful.
Clearly these are extremes, and we all hear with a mixture of ego and spirit, depending on your level of awareness. But when a message like Jobs' is heard primarily from ego, you move in the opposite direction than intended. Instead of encouraging you to live in love and to contribute, you hear that life is not good enough as it is, that you are entitled to more, that there is something "out there" that will eventually make you happy, that unless you live a life of huge accomplishment (as you judge it) you are "settling" and, worst of all, that other people are obstacles to your success. These are the dark shadows of basic spiritual principles.
True spiritual principles teach you to feel gratitude for all that you do have; that happiness is found in the full experience of, and commitment to, the task at-hand; that, when done with a full heart, there are no larger or smaller purposes; caring for your neighbor, being an attentive parent or cheerfully waiting tables, are no greater than running an international business, writing a best-selling book or headlining an award-winning movie.
When driven by ego you always want more, and consequently feel drained, depressed, jealous or angry, believing that life has not been fair to you. "If only it weren't for this job, this marriage, these kids, this town, those people, this face/body/brain... I would be living the life I was meant for." Then, through your negativity and bitterness, you miss the very opportunities for passion and growth that lay right in front of you.
For me, this is not theoretical or theological. When my book was published several years ago I decided that I had finally found my purpose: I was meant to be a writer and spiritual teacher. Suddenly, my job -- running a department at a large commercial real estate firm -- seemed inadequate, a stumbling block to "greater things." My focus and the quality of my work soon declined. Although my clients and coworkers complained, I never saw the irony in teaching the value of work as a spiritual practice, while at the same time resenting my own job. A series of events forced me to wake up from this destructive and egoic pattern, and now I have rediscovered the joy of service and gratitude for my job.
This does not mean that I am complacent and have stopped looking for means to improve my life. Quite the contrary: By staying open to the flow of life as it presents itself, I have found embedded in the moment the love of work and opportunities for growth that I had thought were elsewhere. I still write and teach, but now with more faith, humility and commitmmet to honesty -- and with less egoic yearnings -- trusting that if I honor what life places in front of me, all will unfold for the best.
Distilled by spirit, Steve Jobs' message is simply this: If you want to live a life of passionate purpose, love whatever you do and appreciate what you have right now. This attitude invites passion in. You do not find your passion. Instead, by committing to good work, being of service and staying present, your passion finds you.