This week has been brutal. I have been so sick with influenza and bronchitis that I haven’t had the strength to leave my apartment for a week.
It has been really tough not being able to sleep, not being able to do much of anything, and being in pain. What it has allowed me to do, however, is slow down. Being too ill to really do anything meaningful, I started out by spending my newfound down time like I would spend free time during the week. Reading TechCrunch, catching up on Facebook, letting Scrubs reruns play on Netflix. Scaling these usual activities for larger stretches of time, however, it became clear just how mundane and dry these activities are. There is no depth. Every TC article, Scrubs episode, and FB post is basically the same. They only work when there is enough time between the last time that we did them to fit neatly into the daily and weekly cycles we put ourselves into. Then it becomes clear how repetitive, dull, and lacking of forward progress each day is.
Then suddenly I had this realization: Not only do I have time to read books, I’m actually motivated to do something with more depth. I decided to read the new Becoming Steve Jobs book. I’ve been deeply interested in the remarkable story of Jobs’s incredible comeback since I first heard him describe it at his Stanford address. His story awakened this deep desire within myself to defy the odds, become a major success, and actually change the world. It was that same desire I followed when I left my job at Deloitte to start a technology company to make apps for the iPhone and particularly the iPad. It was devastating to me when Jobs suddenly passed away. I had finally found the person who seemed to have the answers I was looking for, hanging on his every word, and then that person disappeared. There was also a slower awakening happening at the same time. The company I worked so hard to build was not going to succeed. Ever since then there have been far more questions than answers. What does it take to really succeed? How do you know when to keep trying or when to give up? These are all questions I feel like Jobs could have answered for me if I ever could have met him, but I would never get a chance to ask him.
I’ve read a lot about Jobs since then. Aside from the occasional anecdote, it really seemed like most of the things being written about Jobs were written by people who really didn’t know him or understand him. It seemed like most people would either give him too much credit and make him into someone who would turn businesses into gold with a single touch, or they would pull from stories about what a terrible boss he was. There didn’t seem to be anyone trying to reconcile how contradictory these two thought camps were, or answer the more important question–who was Steve Jobs really? There must have been a comprehensible human being connecting these contradictions.
Becoming Steve Jobs is a fantastic read because it answers question of who was the man behind the contradictions. It gives a detailed story of his strengths that allowed him to garner the spotlight at such a young age, his weaknesses that caused him to fail, and how he learned and changed over time. Finally I can understand what I needed to know of when to keep trying, when to admit failure, and when to try something else entirely. It’s more nuanced than I know how to express here, but to put it bluntly, nobody really knows when to keep trying or when to give up, but the thing to pay attention to, is how you are growing as a person.
It’s also finally clear to me the reason I found Steve Job’s message so seductive. Jobs had a lot of the same narccistic qualities I have in myself. He had more confidence in his own abilities than any person could justify. It is true that this same overconfidence that allowed him to become the visionary he was, but it wasn’t until later in his life that he matured enough to temper his overconfidence into becoming a leader. No matter how idealistic our ambitions are, and no matter how resolutely we pursue them, reality cannot be escaped. I am only one person. there are only so many hours in the day, and some of those days, I am going to be too sick to do anything at all.
Sometimes reality hits you hard. This morning I told all my co-workers I would be in the office and agreed to participate in interview rounds for an engineering job candidate. I thought if I set a commitment and willed myself strongly enough to be better, I would just magically be better… or at least better enough. Yet as I stepped foot outside my door it became abundantly clear that my body was not going to allow me to go into the office. It wasn’t a matter of having a goal, or willpower, or even mental strength. It wasn’t even close. Today while reading about Jobs’s overconfidence I thought back on my own overconfidence this morning, and it finally dawned on me. I am not just occasionally overconfident to a slight degree. I am consistently and vastly overconfident. I regularly set for myself unachievable goals and work toward a reality that cannot possibly be achieved.
So what? Isn’t a healthy dose of overconfidence a prerequisite for big time success? Aren’t we as human beings a species that has already defied the odds? Isn’t it perfectly natural to want to defy the odds, to work towards it, and achieve it? Until today I would have argued that it makes sense to be deliberately overconfident and to compensate your shortcomings with sheer drive and effort. But today marks a turning point. Now I would argue that it’s essential that we temper our ambitions with an understanding of what we can do as individuals. It is essential that we know and obey our limits. This is what allows us to reach out to others for help, work on our shortcomings, and grow as human beings.
I realize that at 32 years old I am probably super late to the party to make this realization, but hey better late than never.