A Word of Advice on Words of Advice

A lot of people share and keep sharing Steve Job’s Commencement Speech at Stanford. The official video released by Stanford 6 years ago, has so far garnered 18 millions views. It’s a great speech. If you haven’t watched it, you must.

A lot of people share that video with the message that “follow your passion and don’t settle till you do”. These words of advice from one of the most celebrated visionaries of our times is all good, but here’s a questions for you: did Steve Jobs take his own advice?


A worthy teacher is a blessing indeed. A gold mine. I have a lot of teachers and I’m sure you’ve a lot of teachers and mentors too.

you are not alone
taking advice is a skill that we can practice

Our relationship with our teachers exists because of the advice we receive. Also note, that it is our job to receive that advice, not the teachers’ job to give it.

Taking and absorbing advice is a skill. Possibly one of the most important ones. It will serve us well to learn it, God willing.

Having said that, the best heuristic, the best rule-of-thumb for taking advice that I know is this:

try to learn from what they do instead of just what they say.

To do this you need deeper study into the teacher’s life. And if you’re serious about learning, you will try to do this. And if the teacher is forthcoming, or has a personal blog, or has written a book, or if someone has written a book on him or her etc, this becomes a lot easier. Or so we’d think.

Reading Stories of Success

Don’t you just love biographies? Great insight into a person’s life, and if that person has done something that you want to do, you’d lap it all up.

Some observations:

  • Sometimes, you see that the advice-giver is saying things that don’t add up to his or her own actions. I guess that’s OK. A few people may say that this is hypocrisy: saying one thing and doing the opposite. I try to look at it from a positive perspective: we are fickle creatures, and it is only honest to advise someone with what’s best, instead of what we’ve done. The best among us learn from mistakes therefore there will be a disconnect between advice and action. A crude example is a smoker giving advice that one shouldn’t smoke. The advice is rocksolid, and you should take it. But the actions of the teacher is different than his advice. We should see past that I think.
  • And sometimes – and this is most confusing – the teacher presents his own actions that suggest a different advice, whereas the teacher himself did something different. For example: a business leader saying that he always wanted to start a multinational telecom company, whereas he wanted to be a musician when he was in college. This is the most dangerous type of advice.

Thanks to Cal Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, I read about a controversial case-study of one such mentor. It’s a great book by the way, and I highly recommend it for people looking for some solid career advice.

The mentor in question is the founder of Apple.

Holding Steve Jobs Accountable

History tells us – in livid detail no less – that Steve Jobs was a mini-celebrity at college, walking bare foot and taking Zen meditation classes. He was interested in technology  but was not passionate about it. He started selling electronic boards as an experiment.

steve jobs advice on following passionHis assumption about what would sell was even wrong: he initially tried to sell motherboards. The idea to package it with peripherals (keyboard, screen, mouse etc) was given to him by the store owner who was trying to buy the motherboards!

Of course, this takes nothing away from Steve Jobs: it’s all about experimentation and capitalizing on opportunities and resources as they present themselves. Apple is what it is today because of Steve Jobs’ unrelenting drive towards simplicity and functionality. But Steve Jobs did not “follow his passion”, he followed what worked.

What conclusions would you draw when you compare what he did vs what he said?

Some Words of Caution

Possible mistakes while taking advice (mistakes that I’ve made):

  • Taking advice from the wrong person: deciding on which career to pursue? Or which business to start? Your Mother, although the only person who cares the most about you, is not the person for such advice. As noted before, such advice from caring people should fall on loving, caring, deaf ears.
  • Confusing teachers in universities with teachers in the field: a lot of good university teachers are giving good advice mostly based on their research. But as I’ve found, the quickest way is to find a Practitioner of the field and ask him/her for advice. People love giving advice (trust me :D).
  • Advice is not dictation: don’t follow word for word, even if the teacher intends you to follow word per word. The idea to get a guideline. The best teacher shows the destination and leaves the path to you (heck, that’s a tweetable line right there).

And lastly, most of what is written here is advice, so proceed accordingly. 🙂

Hope this helped. God bless and good luck.


Photos credit: Flickr and WikiCommons (Jobs)

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