Life is a game of growth.
I recently read two books back to back, The Defining Decade by Meg Jay and Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. And as different as these books are, my main takeaway was the same. Life is growth. Constant, humble, honest growth.
No matter what else you’re trying to accomplish in your life, you’re bound to start out being completely incompetent at it, if not necessarily in the talent of a craft itself, certainly in your ability to work with other people to spread your impact, or tell a compelling story, or build relationships. This was the case of Steve Jobs, and the biography is first and foremost a story of a hero’s redemption arc, the dark years he spends in training and seeking vindication from his earlier failures. It’s an arc that is almost, but not quite, complete by the time of his passing. It’s a story that explains as much as it mystifies his worst idiosyncratic behaviors.
But if Jobs was trying to “find it,” the thing he was put on this earth to do, the thing he could love doing and dedicate his life to, he had certainly found it. And his personal growth played a huge role in that rise.
Growth doesn’t strike us serendipitously as we wander through life aimlessly. Growth comes from actively studying past mistakes, and acting on new opportunities even under the sometimes overwhelming knowledge that you won’t get it the first time. Growth is an intentional, conscious process, and one that blesses us most when we take the requisite time and effort to think. This kind of honest growth is what drives Jobs’s story in what the authors of the biography deem the most important years of his life, his years in between his exile from Apple and his triumphant return. It’s also the chief message of The Defining Decade. In it, Jay specifically argues that the best time to become more active in your personal growth is at the start of our twenties, as most of us escape the structured, guided life from school and enter the most intellectually, socially, and introspectively turbulent and stimulating part of our lives. Not coincidentally, this is where I stand as I read the book.
So, how do we grow? I mean, besides the obvious cliches of learning from mistakes and taking chances and being resilient in the face of misfortune. Really, if continued, honest growth is the way towards enjoying life in its fullness, where do we focus? How do we find it?
I want to take you down three avenues of thought I explored in my thinking after these books, on growth, and finding what we want.
Return on luck
Luck isn’t an absolutely necessary component of success, however you define it, but those who are able to capitalize on their good luck go farther than those who aren’t.
Becoming Steve Jobs briefly references an interesting turn of phrase, “return on luck.” Return on luck spins the idea of capitalizing on luck into a question of continued investment with payoffs. In other words, to be able to capture the potential of good luck when it strikes, we need to have been investing in ourselves, our work, and our relationships long beforehand.
This changes the question of good luck and progress, from a picture of continued forward motion, to something more like the stock charts – an overall upward trend in the large, but one that’s only possible because of the long bets and investments that were made especially during the down moments, in the hopes that when things look up again, the investments will pay off.
This perspective on luck asks us to invest the most in ourselves precisely during the low times, when we might see the fewest reasons to, because when the tides shift, we’ll reap returns only as much as we’ve invested.
Stories of your life
The first twenty years of most people’s lives follow a common narrative, driven by objective academic and career goals. But in the immediate aftermath of college and the absence of decades of career growth and an impressive resume, in that middle zone, what goes the farthest is a great personal story.
“Amid the details,” Jay says in The Defining Decade, “a protagonist needs to appear.” The narrative could be a story in the very literal sense, like recounting a summer in Romania teaching English to elementary school students. Or it could be a narrative in the more philosophical sense, connecting the dots between personal interests, relationships, and failures to make sense of the character that drives your identity. A good narrative is inclusive of, not in spite of, your key moments and goals. Any good narrative is driven by character, and any good character is driven by desire – what do you want? And why?
Periodically, it’s helpful to examine the stories of our lives that form the trunk of our identities and clarify it to suit where we want to be headed next. We don’t really get a choice in whether we form a narrative in our heads about ourselves. To try to construct one is human nature. So rather than passively accept one that happens to arise in us naturally, it’s best to be intentional about what we tell ourselves and others about what drives us, and why we are the way we are.
When Jobs returned to Apple as the acting chief in a buyout of his second company NeXT, he had a couple of short years to turn around a heavy, sinking ship that had lost the world’s faith. In that darkest moment in Apple’s history, months before running out of money and after rounds of layoffs that cut the company’s headcount by a third, he launched the critically acclaimed Think Different ad campaign, which would go on to become one of Apple’s most iconic campaigns, and mark the start of Apple’s meteoric return to market dominance in the following decade.
But as much as the campaign did to start to change the public’s perception of Apple, the ad was also for its employees. Those few thousand who remained had weathered Apple’s rapid decline against IBM and many rounds of executive misfires as the company itself made bets that became public failures like the Newton. And as Jobs returned, the campaign seeded a new internal narrative, one not around sales or market position or business fundamentals, but around the counterculture, hacker identity that the original Apple founded by Jobs and Wozniak stood for. That narrative refocus was the first in a series of many events, some very public and some internal, that saved the company.
Jobs loved technology in a very particular way, as an enabler of great work, and specifically, I think, great creative work. It’s apparent throughout his life, from his liberal-arts interests in his short stint at Reed College before he dropped out, to his lifelong interests in industrial design. But where Jobs showed the essence of his passion best was arguably at Pixar, a technology company, but one who’s real soul and magic is in its talent as a storytelling and artistic powerhouse. To Jobs, that was the essence of technology, and his passion for the work Apple did had its roots at enabling such great work, not simply building better computers.
What made Pixar special was the films and stories, not the technology. A small team of animators and writers churned out hit after hit every year from their first hit with Toy Story, then A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, and on and on until they quickened their cadence after merging with Disney. And what made these masterpieces wasn’t so much the triumph of technology, but good technology in service of great characters driving compelling stories. Technology in service of the arts. Knowingly or not, that was the essence of much of Jobs’s best work, at the early Apple, at Pixar, on the iPod and iTunes.
As a younger student, I used to think of the nebulous and over-celebrated ideal of passion as something fiery and red. It was about putting in relentless amounts of time and effort, burying yourself in pursuit of perfection. Passion was something that consumed the passionate, I thought. And at times, maybe that’s true.
But now, I think what enables really great work, the kind that I can do for decades into my future, is framed not by an all-consuming passion but a deeper kind of love and care, the kind with which Jobs saw Pixar films and characters. Dedication like this transcends loss. It never leaves you, through the treachery of losing the company you started or rounds and rounds of public failures. It burns slow, and burns steady, but endures.
It’s also the kind of love I think we should all look for in people, in our partners and family. One that transcends loss and time and endures.
And armed with the resilience granted to us by caring deeply about an idea or a person, we grow out of mistakes and invest in the troughs of our trajectory. These ups and downs form our narratives, and through it, we grow.
When you build something, you walk away with two things, said Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer in its most prolific years and Jobs’s closest collaborator. He said you walk away with the product itself, but more importantly, you walk away with what you learned from the process. And while what you’ve built is your present, what you learned is your future. And for that reason, what you learned is many times more important.
You take your learnings and build whatever’s next. And in that continued search for perfection, in the slow accrual of learnings and iterative growth borne of love, perhaps we’ll find it, too.
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