Steve Jobs and Those Seemingly Irrelevant Experiences

The Wall Street Journal recently printed a portion of Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford. Sometime those experiences, skills, courses, can seem irrelevant. Yet, quite often, later in life they turn out to be a valuable part of who you are.


I naïvely chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and no idea of how college was going to help me figure it out, and here I was, spending all the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms. I returned Coke bottles for the five-cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example.

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer was beautifully hand-calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts, and since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on that calligraphy class and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.

As I read this portion of his speech, I thought about my own life. So many experiences and interesting turns. Sometimes when I reflect on the past I wonder how some of these experiences connect:

  • My first two and a half years of college at Eastfield College (a Dallas County community college). A stimulating time in which I was introduced to so many new ideas in the classroom.
  • Years of working various jobs including at a fast food drive-thru, a bakery, a sales company, and United Parcel Service.
  • Fascinating interviews I conducted for a sociology class project at Eastfield that introduced me to a number of non-profit organizations that exist to help people.
  • Working with churches in Alabama, Missouri, and Texas and all of the experiences that go with ministering to people.
  • Ministering in Kansas City, Missouri, which allowed me to get acquainted with a long-time police officer who introduced me to parts of Kansas City I would never have seen otherwise.
  • Being intentional for most of my adult life about meeting with people over coffee/lunch in order to learn and grow. I am thankful for people who let me ask question after question. These people include ministers, a rabbi, mayors, professors, business people, coaches, etc. These include people who are a variety of ages.

I really could go on and on with this. How does God use these experiences? I’m not sure I always know. However, I do believe he has used these experiences and so many more in ways I already see.


Think about your own life. What have you experienced that seemed to have no relevance to what you were doing at the time but its relevance now is obvious?

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5 thoughts on “Steve Jobs and Those Seemingly Irrelevant Experiences

  1. In my late teens and early twenties I worked as a janitor in a nursing home. This gave me exposure to many elderly, infirmed, and dying people. I grew to love them and many of them had much to teach. The value of this experience for my ministry is huge. Visits to nursing homes, the elderly, and the dying have never intimidated me.

    An older minister I interviewed for a graduate school paper once told me to never write a fancy speech in your head while in transit to visit a family in crisis, but that just being there is enough. That helped too.

  2. When I was a teen our youth group went to minister in song monthly at a nursing home. Little did I know that all my life I would love being around seniors. First as a pastor’s wife, as a nursing attendant and the past 25 yrs. for a Foundation that serves seniors. I’ve been the volunteer services manager, manager and home care coordinator for two of their large manors, and now after retirement am back part-time as pastoral care assistant. Education? Only grade 11, as my father had a heart attack and I had to work to support the family, a bunch of immigrants in the 50s. God has gifted me with organizational, practical,administrative skills and a good dose of common sense and good humor. No education nowadays and hardly anyone will take you on to mentor you into a position!!

    • Karin, what wonderful experiences you’ve had! You have had some rich experiences beginning with your willingness to go to work to support your family. What an education you must have had that year. Now to be able to look back and to see the vast ray of experiences with seniors. Thanks so much for this comment.