“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—because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the wellworn path. And that will make all the difference.” —Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address, June 12, 2005
(Full transcript as HTML or PDF)
Steve Jobs is a great storyteller, and his Stanford address from 2005 is the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard. He tells his story by connecting the dots, and he connects the dots by telling three stories. Each of these three stories is captivating, remarkable, and moving, as stories should be, and so is the overarching life story toward which they connect. I hadn’t thought about this speech for a while; the last time I mentioned it was in a Werbeblogger post about the iPhone, not coincidentally a few days after my own faculty ceremony in 2009.
So why now? In a most unexpected conversation during a wonderful dinner on the last evening of a trip to Vienna, this speech just floated like a bubble up into my conscious thoughts. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure why it did, but after listening to the speech again the dots connected, and it became perfectly clear.
When I went to Vienna and Graz last week for a few days, I went there with a friend. There, we visited old friends I hadn’t seen for decades, and made new ones. Now, I do ask myself from time to time: how do friendships start? Often, it’s simply a case of getting used to—by living and working with people from one’s social circles and professional life. This, I should add, is nothing to sneer at. Becoming accustomed to each other in a good sense is very important in building long-lasting relationships, including love relationships. Then, there’s the kind of friendship that develops rather quickly within small, organized groups, especially when under pressure, from work groups to sports teams to military units. This kind of bonding is also very important, with friendships that can last for a lifetime. And then there’s the kind of friendship that happens just so, within a few hours, often with an unlikely person and in an implausible place.
“Unlikely” and “implausible” by looking forward, that is. Looking backwards after some time, it often becomes clear that the person wasn’t unlikely and the place not implausible at all. Or seems to become clear because, come to think of it, why would that be so? It’s because we’re connecting the dots in hindsight indeed! Not only by reading (i. e., telling ourselves) the “Story of Our Life” all the time, but rereading this story differently each time something unexpected is added to it, each time we encounter something or someone new. (About if and how we construct ourselves and our lives like a narrative, I wrote at length here.)
In a certain way, of course, connecting the dots is an illusion. As John Barth once wrote in his novel On With the Story, “The story of our life is not our life, it is our story.” So this story is an illusion, but it is an illusion that is necessary to make us what we are, to make us human. Because humans, after all, are storytelling animals.