(From Steve Jobs' Convocation speech on August 27, 1991, at which he was given the Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology.)
Thank you very much for this. It means a lot to me. I’m a peculiar Reed alumnus, as many of you know. I never graduated from Reed—although that doesn’t make that unusual, I suppose.
But maybe more unusual: I ran out of money after one semester here at Reed, so I dropped out, but then I dropped in for another year-and-a-half. So, I was actually here by choice. This is somewhat more unusual. And I had some experiences here that I’m sure many of you will have as freshmen and throughout your years here, that have stayed with me my whole life. I was thinking of some of them to recount to you.
Remember that I’m much older than you, in that, I’ve always thought that people’s spark of self-consciousness turns on at about 15 or 16, and so from normalized age to 15 or 16, most of you are two or three or four years old here, as freshmen; I’m about 20. So that maybe puts in perspective what it’s like to return to Reed after so many years.
But a few things stick in my mind that I wanted to pass on that maybe could be of some value. The first was that, as you will be shortly, I was forced to go to humanities lectures, it seemed like every day. I studied Shakespeare with Professor Svitavsky. And at the time I thought these were meaningless and even somewhat cruel endeavors to be put through. I can assure you that as the patina of time takes its toll, I thank God that I had these experiences here. It has helped me in everything I’ve ever done, although I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time.
The second experience that I remember from Reed is being hungry. All the time. The cafeteria here taught me quickly to be a vegetarian. I didn’t have so much money, so I would gather up Coke bottles and take them up to the store to find out how to eat. I discovered the cheapest way to eat was Roman Meal. Have you ever heard of this? It’s cereal. It was invented by a Harvard professor who studied with a history professor who one day wondered what the Roman legion took with them to eat as they conquered and pillaged these villages, and he found out through his research that it’s Roman Meal, and you can buy it at the local store, and it’s the cheapest way to live. So I lived for many months on Roman Meal.
But also, several of us, after not eating for a few days, would hitchhike across town to the Hare Krishna temple on Sundays, where they would feed all comers. Through practice, we discovered just the right moment to arrive after their particular religious practices and right before the food. And, not having eaten for days, we would eat a lot, and on several occasions stay over, because we were not able to move. The following morning, they would wake us up at four o’clock in the morning because it was their time to go gather flowers for their temple to honor Krishna. So they would take us with them, pre-dawn, out into the neighborhood where they would proceed to steal flowers from the neighbors. And the neighbors that lived close to the Hare Krishna temple soon were wise to their pillage and would get up early in the morning and guard their flower beds, and so they would have to go in an ever-wider circumference about their temple.
In spending a little time with these people, I noticed some of their other behaviors: they used to sell incense to the local department stores and then go steal it back, so that the department stores would buy more and they would have a thriving business. And their ethics told them that this was fine, that anything in the service of Krishna was fine. In interacting with them I think I learned more about situational ethics than I ever did on campus.
The last experience I wanted to recount to you was: there is a man—I think he’s here today—named Jack Dudman, who used to be the dean of the school, who was one of the heroes of my life while I was here, because Jack Dudman looked the other way when I was staying on campus without paying. He looked the other way when I was taking classes without being a formal student and paying the tuition. And often times, when I was at the end of my rope, Jack would go for a walk with me and I would discover a $20 bill in my tattered coat pocket after that walk, with no mention of it from Jack before, during, or after.
I learned more about generosity from Jack Dudman and the people here at this school than I learned anywhere else in my life. So, I wanted to thank this community, because the things I learned here stayed with me. Character is built not in good times, but in bad times; not in a time of plenty, but in a time of adversity—and this school seems to nurture that spirit of adversity, and I think does build some character. So, I thank you for teaching me how to be hungry and how to keep that with me my whole life. Thank you very much.
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