Connecting The Dots

In a commencement speech to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs advised, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect the dots looking backward.” Jobs said this in regards to those times in our lives when we follow our hearts…and find ourselves off the “normal” path.

As a teenager, while waiting tables at a bar & grill, an old cook befriended me. Round and kind with a calm, even temper uncharacteristic of cooks at the establishment (except for “Hollywood” who earned his nickname by wearing shades to conceal his bloodshot eyes). I don’t know how old the cook actually was, very old to me, because when you are 17 everyone with gray hair is incredibly old.

The cook was always on in the mornings when I started my shift. Meals for staff were half off.  Hash browns were the cheapest item on the menu; I ordered them every time I worked. My cook friend, we’ll call him Don, made amazing hash browns by adding cheese, onions, sausage, sometimes even a fried egg. It was the kind of thing that you know you really don’t deserve, but are greatfull nonetheless.

In addition to creative hash brown making, Don was willing to listen to me talk about my dreams for the future. My original plan had been to join the Peace Corps, but they were mostly interested in college graduates or people with agricultural knowledge. I was in my last year of high school and dragging my feet applying to colleges.

Don told me that if he “had it to do over” he would have liked to have been a teacher.

At the time, I found Don’s unrealized dream absolutely astonishing.  It wasn’t like he wanted to be movie star or the president of the United States. Several schools in the area offered teaching degree programs, but Don’s otherwise optimistic outlook was severely clouded in this area. He simply did not see a path to his dream. Puzzling as it was for me as a young person, I now know how making changes gets harder every year. Bills, vehicle and house maintenance, family obligations, and a multitude of other daily tasks to keep us from thinking about, let alone pursuing our dreams. And, as we age, we become more and more cautious about taking risks. We are instinctual in the avoidance of pain. Learning new things means awkwardness, sacrifice, mistakes.

Maybe the cook didn’t have the funds to go back to school. I’m not sure. We lost touch after I went off to college. Anyway. Listening to Steve Jobs commencement speech reminded me of the cook, those delicious hash browns, and what it means to follow (and realize) our dreams.

Jobs has lead quite a full life by following his dreams, by not without experiencing his share of hard times. While discussing his being fired from Apple he stated this realization, “I’d been rejected, but I was still in love.” And he took that love and put it into NeXT and Pixar. By following his heart, he was able to realize more dreams…rather than just mourning the loss of his former occupation.

Sometimes we worry about connecting the dots and as Steve so eloquently put it,”Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”

Jobs goes on to advise graduates to find what they love. This piece of advice could be framed, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe to be great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”  Repeat that advise to yourself whenever you feel Stuck. Think of all that you do, not only in your work life…but in your whole life. Are you doing great work? Are you doing what you love?

If I ever ran into my friend the cook I would tell him that he taught me a few great lessons about generosity, patience, and the importance of listening to teenagers.

And I would tell him, if he hadn’t already realized it, that teachers are people who teach.

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