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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

The Mystery of Outstanding Achievement

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I'm glad to see so much attention being given to the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford University in 2005. It's a wonderful combination of personal history and practical advice. The irony of the event was that Jobs' own experience at college was brief and he never got a diploma.

That's not a criticism. All I'm saying is that discovering extraordinary talent within ourselves is a process that does not occur solely within an academic setting and it can't be standardized into a giant educational template.

Finding the best ways to unlock creativity and enthusiasm for learning is a goal that American academics have been pondering for decades. And while smaller class sizes, ongoing teacher training, and technology upgrades can produce better learning opportunities, they can't guarantee success later in life.

Every person is unique. What a child accomplishes as an adult is often impossible to predict by scrutinizing grade point averages or youthful activities. For example :

* Babe Ruth didn't play Little League baseball.
* Abraham Lincoln wasn't a political science major.
* Sacajawea had no formal training as a facilitator.
* Walt Whitman did not attend writing workshops.
* Harriet Tubman never went to a leadership seminar.

If these people could start over as kindergartners right now, would they become classroom standouts or eventual dropouts? This question brings up another fact that makes forecasting the outcome of anyone's life so tricky: it can be affected by random events or chance encounters with other people.

What if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had never gotten together? Ditto for Bill Gates and Paul Allen, or Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. History is filled with moments when two individuals made a connection, combined their talents and produced amazing results. It would be great if we could make these remarkable partnerships happen more often, but creativity and collaboration operate in mysterious ways.

Is it possible to maximize opportunities for brilliant thinking in this country? I believe the answer is yes, and the way to do it is through constant collective encouragement. So I hope video recordings and transcripts of the Steve Jobs commencement address are circulated far and wide, to encourage and inspire audiences of all ages. It could also be bundled with other messages of enduring insight such as The Last Lecture by the late Professor Randy Pausch.

If I'm ever asked to deliver my own version of a graduation speech, it'll be short because I only have a few basic suggestions. Set high standards for yourself. Be a good listener. Learn from your mistakes. Never hesitate to ask questions. Reject boredom. Lastly and, perhaps, most importantly, maintain your originality. Don't say, "I plan to be the next Steve Jobs." Tell the world, "I'm going to be the first ME."