Since his death, a quote from Steven Jobs' famous graduation address to Stanford in 2005 has been flying around the Internet:
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
These words came from a young man who at the height of his creative powers knew that he had only a few years to live. How many of us would be so gracious and expansive, giving energy and optimism to others as we face untimely death? And yet these words, offered with the intention of inspiring those who may feel limited or unworthy, can lead to stress, damaged relationships, unhappiness and resentment.
How can a message about resisting dogma, trusting intuition and finding your passion ever cause damage? Aren't these core spiritual teachings that we should all pursue, leading inevitably to happier, more fulfilled lives? Don't we hear that the highest thing we can do is to chase our dreams?
Well, like all messages, it depends on who's listening.
We are comprised of two essential parts: ego and Spirit. Spirit is the flow of timeless consciousness that animates our bodies and connects us to everything. It is our true nature as manifestations of God. Ego is the "software" implanted in us to ensure survival, constantly scanning for threats and using the intellect to devise solutions. Healthy human beings need both ego and Spirit. Jewish tradition sees these as our two "inclinations," teaching that ego -- although literally translated as the "bad" inclination -- is fundamentally good because it contains our drive to create. But when we feel deeply threatened -- usually due to childhood abuse of all kinds -- ego can seek to take total control of our lives. Ego can even take control of spirituality, which it sees as a way to feel special and superior (see "The Allure of Narcissistic Spirituality"). Everything that that ails us as a species comes from this ego-hijacking.
With understanding of this basic dynamic, we can hear Jobs' message in two radically different ways. Here is how Spirit may hear it:
Like all physical life, you have incarnated for a sacred purpose, and therefore every moment is an opportunity to experience this truth. While the intellect will try to tell you that thinking is the highest form of knowing, seeking to control you with its constructs, remember that all opinions (including yours) are the ego's voice -- its need to be right and to control others in order to feel safe. I can see through this tactic, though, and am your guide. You already know the truth of your existence, but are often blocked by the fear of rejection or judgment. The challenge of your life is to push through this uncertainty with the faith that you are more than this. You can find Me when you courageously commit to opening your heart and trusting your intuition. All else is a pale reflection that has been created by your fears, while all joy comes from the commitment to love.
Now, here is how Jobs' message may be heard by the fearful ego:
The future holds my promise of happiness and success. Life is too short to waste on anything (or anyone) that does not move me in that direction. Other people (being small-minded or jealous) will want to keep me from this goal and will try to constrain me within their limiting rules, or smother me with their negativity. I will not let them, because I have a passionate heart and uncommon intuition (unlike them). I was meant for something special (also, unlike them), and there is something out there that I am meant to do and will love doing. Once I find it my life will flow. Everything else is secondary to this vision, so I will not settle for a small, average life. In this recognition I am deeply spiritual (and better than you).
Not so beautiful.
Clearly these are extremes, and we all hear with a mixture of ego and Spirit, depending on our level of awareness. But when a message like Jobs' is heard primarily from ego, you move in the opposite direction than intended. Instead of determining to live in love and contribution, you hear that life is not good enough as it is; that you are entitled to more; that there is something "out there" that will eventually make you happy; that unless you live a life of huge accomplishment (as you judge it) you are "settling;" that "mundane" tasks should be left for others; and, worst of all, that other people are obstacles to your success. These are the dark shadows of basic spiritual principles that are the result of ego-hijacking, and cause tremendous unhappiness.
True spiritual principles teach you to feel gratitude for all that you do have; that happiness is found in the full experience of and commitment to, the task at-hand; that, when done with a full heart, there are no larger or smaller purposes -- that caring for your neighbor, being an attentive parent, or cheerfully waiting tables, are no greater than running an international business, writing a best-selling book or headlining an award-winning movie.
When driven by ego, though, you always want more, and consequently feel drained, depressed, jealous, or angry, believing that life has not been fair to you. "If only it weren't for this job, this marriage, these kids, this town, those people, this face/body/brain... I would be living the life I was meant for." Then, through your negativity and bitterness, you miss the very opportunities for passion and growth that lay right in front of you.
For me, this is not theoretical. When my book was published several years ago I decided that I had finally found my purpose; to be a writer and spiritual teacher. Suddenly my job -- running a department at a large commercial real estate firm -- seemed inadequate; a stumbling block to "greater things." My focus and the quality of my work soon declined, and although my clients and coworkers complained, I never saw the irony of teaching the value of work as a spiritual practice while resenting my own job. And as I felt more impatient and ungrateful my writing and teaching also naturally deteriorated because deep down I felt like a phony. A series of events forced me to wake up from this destructive and egoic pattern, and now I have rediscovered the joy of service and gratitude for my job. I still write and teach, and still dream of a time when this will be my full-time occupation, but now trusting that if I honor what life places in front of me all will unfold for the best.
This is what the Psalmist meant when he wrote, "This is the day that God made. Rejoice and be happy in it." Living a life of passion and purpose is not something that happens "some day" under the right circumstances. It occurs when you commit to love whatever you do and appreciate what you have right now. This does not mean that you should be complacent, stop looking for means to improve your life, or give up on your dreams. Quite the contrary. It means that by rejoicing in the flow of life as it presents itself you will find embedded in the moment directions for growth and new passions that your fearful ego never could have imagined. This is true faith, and is how you connect to Spirit.
When you live in Spirit you do not need to chase your dreams. Instead, by committing to good work, being of service, and staying present, your dreams find you.