Defensive and Skeptical

Craftsmanship & Consideration

In Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech he famously concluded by quoting the back cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue’s final issue.

It was their farewell message as they signed off.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

And I’ve always wished that for myself. And now as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Early in my career when I heard that quote it hit me as a lovely bit of motivational speaking. Something to encourage you to “get out there and do some good work”. The kind of thing you often hear at commencement speeches. I heard it has a positive affirmation.

Now that I’m further along in my career (and life) it hits me very differently. Now I hear it as a word of warning, a cautionary admonition.

When you are early in your career the best path forward is typically to hungrily strive forward. Embracing every possible opportunity, maybe not with foolish abandon but with consistent, unrelenting determination. You have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

That works well enough until you achieve some level of success. Success is wonderful and lovely, but it also brings with it obligation. Once you have achieved something worth holding on to, you now need to do the work to maintain it. Once you have had some success now you suddenly have less to gain, and something to lose.

I noticed this in my own mindset after I had my first successes. It became much more difficult to pursue new opportunities with the same determined vigor as I did in the early days. I now would filter my decisions and new pursuits through an analysis of how they could negatively impact my existing accomplishments. It now felt reckless to undertake every opportunity, to jump at every idea.

Rather than being “Hungry and Foolish” it was now the prudent course of action to instead be “Defensive and Skeptical”. To be incredibly circumspect of which opportunities are worth the risk. To take actions which provide stability and preserve what you already have. To become comfortable with slow, measured growth.

I have no idea if this is what Steve Jobs meant in his commencement speech. He could have simply meant it in the positive, motivational sense. But increasingly I wonder if he may have also meant it in the cautionary sense as well. He had certainly overseen tremendous success and undoubtedly had to wrestle with the tension between preserving what you have and gaining something new.

Where I have settled in my own work is to strive to keep some meaningful part of my mindset hungry and foolish. To continue to be open to new opportunities and eager to explore them. I don’t want to end up miserly defending what I have already achieved, I want a professional life still rich with tackling interesting problems. Though admittedly I am more thoughtful in this pursuit.

In doing so one of the weird paradoxes of life also starts to emerge. I start to see that the only way to truly defend what you have is through continuous action. That defensiveness and skepticism are actually more likely to lead to loss. That it is action, and sometimes bold action at that, which allows you to keep hold of whatever success you have. Inactivity is depletion.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
David Smith