11 Life Lessons to Learn From Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Yesterday morning, I was busy writing the preparation post for upcoming 21-Day Meditation Challenge (Which is now up: 21DMC, Day 0 – Preparation. For those who don’t know about 21DMC, it’s a 21-day meditation challenge from Oct 8 to Oct 28. Read more: 21-Day Meditation Challenge).

As I took a quick glance at my Twitter timeline, I saw a message which said, “RIP Steve Jobs”.

When I first saw it, my first reaction was: “Is this a joke?”.

But things like that don’t get joked around. So I quickly did a search on Google for Steve Jobs, and was greeted with newly published articles (in the past few minutes) of Steve Job’s recent passing, along with other sites related to him.

I quickly scrolled down the searches, clicked into Steve’s Wikipedia (always a good objective information source) and saw that the page had been updated with the date of his death and a section on his passing. It appears that he passed away on Oct 5, 2011 at the age of 56, with his family issuing a statement saying he “died peacefully today“.

Now, I can’t claim to know much about Steve Jobs nor do I make a point to follow any updates about him, Apple, iPod, iPhone or any of the “i” products. I do not use any Apple products (not at the moment). I’m largely disinterested when it comes to technology news and developments, preferring to focus on development of our consciousness vs. tangible goods, and hence my work at PE.

But from whatever I know about him, he struck me as an incredible leader and game changer – someone whom I regard *and* look up to as an inspirational figure in living a life of highest excellence. If you have read the other articles here at PE, you’d know I frequently cite Steve Jobs as an symbol of excellence and success. Steve Jobs had repeatedly proven that limitations are in our mind, and it’s a matter of challenging them to achieve our dreams.

Given his impact in our lives, be it his work in the personal computers (Apple, Macintosh), mobile phones (iPhone), mp3 players (iPod), music distribution (iTunes), tablet computers (iPad) and animation (Pixar), I thought Steve deserved a tribute post at PE. Even though I don’t use any Apple products, Steve (and his team) has undoubtedly made it much easier for people to work, live, and play, with his creations.

This is not something I normally do (writing tribute posts or posts about people for that matter), but Steve has been a true role model to many, in terms of how he lived his life and pursued his dreams – something which many may not be aware of. We may know him as the man behind Apple/iPhone/iPad/etc, but there is much more to Steve Jobs than being just the leader of one of the world’s most valued companies.

By way of this post, I would like to drive awareness on how boldly he had led his life, and 11 personal development lessons we can learn from him.

If you’re neutral to Steve Jobs or not a fan of Steve, that’s fine – for what it’s worth, I’m largely neutral to Steve Jobs and uninvolved with his life’s work (as I mentioned above), and see myself more as someone who distantly respects him as an individual, visionary and game changer. Don’t let your neutrality or bias stop you from learning important (personal development) lessons from this man.

As you read this post, think about how you can apply the lessons to yourself. Don’t just read this post and nod away at each point, then forget about everything you’ve read minutes later. That’ll truly be an incredible shame for yourself. Steve was born a regular person just like any of us, not given anything more or less in terms of his life. At the end of the day, it was how he led his life that made it different from everyone else.

1. Life is what you make it out to be

If you don’t know anything about Steve Jobs other than generic public knowledge, here’s a quick run down of his background:

  • He was born out of wedlock, to graduate student parents who gave him up for adoption thereafter.
  • He was adopted and raised in a working class family. His foster father fixed cars for a living.
  • His biological parents wanted a girl, not a boy.
  • He dropped out of college, after only 1 semester. His highest qualification was high school.
  • While he was attending Reed (his college), he would be “sleeping on the floor in friends’ rooms, returning Coke bottles for food money, and getting weekly free meals at the local Hare Krishna temple”.
  • In 1985, he was fired, very publicly, from the very company he founded (Apple), after losing a power struggle with the board of directors. (He would then later return as CEO (in 1997) after Apple bought over NeXT, the company Steve founded after leaving Apple.)
  • In 2003, he discovered he had cancerous tumor in his pancreas. He would then engage in a long battle with cancer for the next 8 years, till his recent passing.

Most people who didn’t know Steve would assume he probably had a privileged life, had a silver spoon in his mouth, and had his path to success laid out before him.

But it wasn’t the case, as you could see above. He was born out of wedlock. He wasn’t the child his parents wanted. He was given up for adoption. He was fired from the company he created. He was publicly humiliated during that time. And he was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, which ultimately took his life.

While he was not necessarily dealt with the best cards, it didn’t matter a single bit. Rather than complain or let himself be paralyzed by the situations, he made the best out of what he was given – then went to create the kind of life he wanted, eventually becoming the CEO of one of the most valued companies in the world, a billionaire many times over, and one of the most respected people in the world today.

When life gives you a curveball, what do you do? Do you (a) sit and whine about it (b) make the best out of it or (c) throw the curveball back at life and create your home run? Most people do (a) – these are the whiners. Some people do (b) – these people generally do good, but that’s about it. Few people do (c) – these are the true winners.

You always have a choice in how you live your life. Don’t victimize yourself because no matter how bad things may seem at the moment, there are hundreds to hundred thousands of people out there who are worse off than you. When you rise above what you are given, that’s when you soar.

2. Dream big – very big

Before Apple’s rise in the last decade, Microsoft was the undisputed giant in the world of personal computers. Before iPod, mp3 players were known only as mp3 players. Before iTunes, it seemed almost unlikely for anyone would pay for music online, when music piracy was so rampant. Before iPhone, Nokia was the long-time market leader for mobile handsets. Before iPad, there didn’t seem to be a need for tablet computers – PCs and laptops seemed to do the job just fine.

In each situation, no one would have ever thought things would change.

But the status quo was broken, each time, with exceeding results. With each product release, Steve Jobs (and his team) revolutionized the industry and created a new movement – from personal computing, to mp3 players, to music distribution, to mobile phones, to tablet computers.

iPod became integral to the lifestyle of masses, became synonymous with mp3 players, and paved the way to the collapse of CD sales. iTunes became the #1 music vendor in US in 2008, with 10 billion song downloads as of 2010 (after just 7 years of being online).  iPhone created a demand for touchscreen phones, broke Nokia’s long-time market leadership and changed the game of the mobile phone industry. iPad 2 sold more than all other tablet PCs combined since the iPad’s release (in 2010) and is expected to account for 83% of the tablet computing market share in US by 2011 (source).

These happened because Steve allowed himself to dream big – to see beyond what was in the present, to think outside the box, to go where no one had ventured before.

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Apple’s Think Different commercial (#9 on the list)

How do you set your goals? Do you base them on what has already been achieved out there? Or do you base them on your boldest, grandest, deepest heart’s desire? The latter is how you’re going to create a movement and shake the world. What are your biggest, wildest dreams? Set them and go for them.

3. The greatest things started somewhere

Steve Jobs started Apple in his parents’ garage, along with high-school buddy Steven Wozniak. Not exactly the most glamorous start for the world’s largest technology company today – Not that it mattered, because it would never have grown if there was never a start in the first place.

I often hear of people saying that they can’t do X because they need to wait for A, B and C to be in place. Fair enough, but are these prerequisites really necessary or are they just excuses not to take action? If we are forever waiting for things to be perfect, when will we start taking action then?

I started Personal Excellence 3 years ago with a free basic WordPress template, a semi-casual introduction post, and no readership to boot. Today it has evolved into one of the top personal development blogs online. As of Oct ’11, we are tracking to hit almost hitting a million pageviews a month. We got from A to B because I didn’t wait to take action. I just launched the blog, despite having and knowing nothing, and took things from there.

Likewise for you, how can you get started on your dreams today, even if in a small capacity? It’s from starting that you get to somewhere. The greatest things were at a time, but just a dream.

4. Certifications don’t matter

“Truth be told, I never graduated from college. And this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.” – Steve Jobs, during his address at Stanford Commencement 2005

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed after just 1 semester. His highest education qualification was high school level. He would become one of the many billionaire school dropouts today who would put the age old belief that certification is essential for success in life to shame.

I’m not saying to quit studying or not to have any cerification. After all, I myself am a college graduate and a product of the formal education system.

All I’m saying is that whether you succeed or not in life is independent of your certification. There are people who succeed in life and are graduates, just as there are people who succeed and don’t have any certification. What’s more important is your skill level, your attitude, and your aptitude (which can subsequently be honed through 10,000 hours). I shared the same thoughts previously in Ask Celes – Are Coaching Courses Necessary To Be a Coach?

If you are studying at the moment, or if you have plans to study/get some form of certification in the future, be conscious of why you are pursuing it, and whether it meets your needs.

For those who are in school – Are you drifting your way through school so you can get a piece of paper at the end of your course, as a ticket to the working world? For those who have earned your certifications – Are you hiding behind them as a safety shield and using them as an excuse not to grow? And for those who don’t have certifications in what you want to pursue in – Are you letting this be an excuse not to pursue what you want to do in life?

5. Live every day like it is your last

Steve Jobs was a strong proponent of living life to the fullest – every day. This was clear from many of his quotes:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me.”

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

If you reflect it on yourself, as you living your life to the fullest? Or are you wasting your days away, sleepwalking? If you were to die today, will you die happy or with regrets? What can you do about those regrets now, before it’s too late? What are all the things you want to do before you die? How can you start working on them now?

6. Stop listening to what others say

“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.” – Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech 2005

Steve Jobs faced his fair share of naysayers in his lifetime. When he was fired very publicly from Apple in 1985, he was dismissed by the industry as a “flash in the pan” – i.e., had a showy beginning, but with nothing to tell at the end. Business leaders and press saw him as a has-been.

What followed though, was one of the most remarkable comebacks in business history.

After getting fired, Steve went on to create NeXT, a computer platform development company. He also purchased the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm Ltd, and later spun it off as Pixar (which was subsequently acquired by Disney in 2006).

“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.” – Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech 2005

In 1996, in an ironic twist of events, Apple, after a decade of steady losses since firing Steve Jobs, acquired NeXT for the computer platform system which it was missing. Steve stepped in as interim CEO in 1997, before being appointed as official CEO in 2000.

Under his leadership, Apple was brought back from the brink of bankruptcy, and is today the largest company in the world (surpassing Microsoft in 2011) by both revenue *and* profit. He continued to serve as the CEO until 2011 this year (when he quit to tend to his health).

How’s that for size?

If Steve Jobs had listened to his detractors when he was fired, he would never have achieved the success he did. Rather, he listened to his heart and did what he felt he had to do. Being guided by that led him to realize his goals – many times over.

“People sometimes have goals in life. Steve Jobs exceeded every goal he ever set for himself.” – Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, on Steve Jobs

Whatever your dreams are, follow them. Don’t listen to the naysayers, the people who discourage you from living the life of your heart’s desire. Following their words will only make your life a shadow of theirs’, not the life you’re looking for. Listen to your inner voice and follow it, because you can never go wrong with it.

7. Do not underestimate the impact you can have on the world

“I want to put a ding in the universe.” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was just 1 person, but look at how he revolutionized the technology industry and impacted masses with his work. It’s safe to say that iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iPad, among his other creations have positively impacted millions (if not billions) of lives around the world. This would have never happened if he didn’t pursue his dreams.

Likewise for you, there is a world out there waiting for you to impact it. Are you ready to start your revolution?

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” — Steve Jobs’ legendary pitch to John Sculley (then PepsiCo CEO) in 1983, to get him to run Apple (Sculley later pushed Jobs out of Apple in 1985)

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?” – Steve Jobs

What is the change you want to bring to this world? What do you need to do to make it happen? How can you start your revolution, with effect from today?

8. Failure only happens when you deem it to be so

Steve Jobs was fired from the very company he created. By most people’s standards, this would be the epitome of failure. Most people would give up, hide from the world and wallow in self-pity, right at this point.

Not him though. As I detailed in #6, he went on to create 2 successful companies (NeXT and Pixar), got rehired into Apple, turned it around in one of the biggest comebacks in business history, and made it the biggest technology company today. He never gave up on himself and fought for what he believed in.

Many of you often ask me how I got the confidence to quit everything in my life and plunge right into pursuing my passion back in 2008. How about failure – what if I failed? What would I have done?

Here’s the thing about failure – The biggest lesson I learned about failure is this: There is no failure until you deem it to be so. This means even if you lose all your money, go bankrupt, lose your housing, suffer some major setback, or fall flat on your face, you have not failed. It is only one of the many, many mid-points toward your end goal. The only point you fail is when you give up – because that’s when the story ends.

That’s the reason why I was able to pursue my path so relentlessly, without hesitation, even in the early days when I had no supposed reason to believe everything would work out. I knew as long as I kept going, it was a matter of time before I reached my goal. Anything that was going to happen before that would merely be an occurrence along the journey – nothing more, nothing less.

So if you often hold back in your decision making because you’re afraid to fail, know that failing doesn’t exist until you declare you have failed. So as long as you keep going, and have no intentions to give up on your dreams, you can never fail. It’s a matter of time before you get to where you want to be.

9. Do what you love

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is […] to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs

I talk about the importance of pursuing your passion all the time, with good reason. You have the rest of your life to work, so rather than do something you don’t like THEN retire and do the things you’ve been meaning to do all your life, why not pursue your passion and make that your life’s work? Sure, you *may* have to backtrack a bit where income is concerned, but that’s just temporary. As long as you deliver top value, and keep outdoing yourself (see #11), it’s a matter of time before you achieve *both* passion AND money.

Don’t make yourself work in a job you dislike, because that will be to waste your life away. Do what you love, because that’s what life is about – doing the things you love.

10. Have faith – Never lose hope

“Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” – Steve Jobs, on getting fired from Apple back in 1985

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech 2005

Even when things looked bleak, Steve always had faith that things would work out okay one day. It kept him going and allowed him to make the best out of his life (see #5).

No matter what rough patch you may be going through now, don’t give up. Don’t lose hope either. As long as you keep going, you will see the light at the end of the tunnel. You are not here to suffer – you are here to blossom as an individual. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s up to you to assign that reason. (see #1)

11. Outdo yourself – Over, and over again

As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, I don’t follow any of Apple’s news or of its product releases/updates. Hence, news on iPhone 3/4/5, MacBook Air, iPod mini/nano/shuffle/touch/etc are lost on me.

However, the fact that people care about these models, discuss about them at length and continue to buy them (over and beyond initial hype), shows they do find value in the new models. Be it thinner, lighter, faster, longer battery life, or increased functionality, these upgrades are things which consumers find valuable, and have their lives improved as a result.

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” – Steve Jobs

“None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” – Jobs responding to whether he did market research for the iPad

What I love about Steve Jobs is how he relentlessly pursued betterment, both in his life and his work. He was already successful in his early years, but this didn’t stop him from wanting to become better. Beyond settling for status quo, he kept pushing for innovation – each time creating one game changing product after another. Because of that, he kept growing, and so did Apple.

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Steve Jobs

If you look at your past 3-5 year history, have you been outdoing yourself? Or have you been stagnating? What can you do to outdo yourself? As the CEO of your life, what is the new trajectory of growth you want to embark for the next few years?


I hope you found this tribute meaningful in some way, and got a few lessons out of it. I learned a few new things about Steve Jobs and Apple in writing this article, which made me even more respectful of their success today. Steve Jobs was indeed an inspirational man with an incredible spirit.

If you could apply just a couple out of the 11 lessons above, I’m sure it will make a world of a difference in your life.

RIP Steve Jobs (1955-2011) – A visionary, genius, and legend.

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