Stay hungry, stay foolish – A great principle for life

The guiding principle in the life of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the visionary US entrepreneur that gave us many wonderful tools (Mac, iPhone, iPad) and animations (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) that the world has grown to love, has just passed away.

He is an entrepreneur and innovator that I truly admire. This is even more so after I have watched his 2005 speech at Stanford University. He shared 3 important points:

1. Connecting the dots in life

Steve Jobs shared about his bad start in life, where he was given away for adoption by his unwed natural mother. His adopted parents promised and fulfilled the promise to give him a college life. He chose to drop out of college after 6 months, because it cost his adopted parents a lot of money and he had no idea what the college degree would do for his life. He stayed on as a college drop-in for another 18 months. He could then attend the courses that he liked, instead of those that he did not like but had to take to fulfil the degree’s requirements.

It wasn’t that he knew exactly what he was doing back then. He took a journey off the well-beaten path. It was scary, but he wanted to follow his curiosity and trust that things will turn out ok in the end. He did not see the dots when he started out. They only connected when he looked back with hindsight.

2. Love what you do

He loved what he did and grew Apple Inc. within 10 years to become a US$2 billion company with 4,000 employees. Then, he was fired at age 30 because of differences in vision with Apple’s board about the company’s direction. He became a high-profile ‘failure’, known throughout the world for being fired from his own company. Ironically, that loss gave him the lightness of being a beginner all over again. From there, he founded NeXT Computer Inc.  (which was later sold to Apple and he re-joined Apple) and Pixar Animation.

He shared that life sometimes hit you hard with a brick. However, as long as you have genuine love and passion for what you are doing, you can cope with it, as he has demonstrated by bouncing back stronger than ever.

3. Facing the certainty of death

He has learnt from a young age to understand human mortality. Death is the destination that we all share. Instead of being morbid about it, he used it to follow his heart; to do what he felt was necessary. He called on us not to be trapped by living other people’s life for us, but to find the courage to follow our heart and intuition. Indeed, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to deal with various illnesses along the way. Yet, he went on to create the hugely successful iPhone and iPad even while fighting his illnesses.

Steve Jobs ended his Stanford talk with the phrase, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”. It was something he read when he was a young man, and it became his guiding principle throughout life. He wished that for the Stanford graduates as they journey in their lives.

I totally understand and appreciate his perspective in life. I had undergone a journey too where I decided at some point, that I was chasing academic qualifications without the love for what I was doing. So I left a secure career to begin a journey to find and connect the dots in my life.

I found my passion later running businesses, first as a professional manager for an entrepreneurial company and later starting out my own. When you have found the passion for what you do, work was never a chore. Each day was filled with new challenges that you look forward to overcome. My company nearly failed a couple of times. I saw them as bricks that life threw at me. These were challenges you just have to overcome.

I left the company I founded after 9 years. Nothing man-made is too important that we cannot let go of. And in letting go, we have to trust that the dots that will come will somehow connect together.

Death is a certainty for all. We do not have long to live. I rather live my own life than to worry how other people want me to live it.

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

I feel Singaporeans can do with a dose of the advice from Steve Jobs. Often, we go through life living it for someone else.

Too often, we seek the security of our qualifications. With the qualifications, we find a secure job. With so much at stake, we do not wish to take risks anymore. When I was starting off after leaving my academic career, I wanted to stay hungry. I prefer not to be too comfortable with life that I would not want to venture out anymore. My wife and I started our first venture when our three children were very young. We threw in all our savings. By being hungry, we had to make it happen.

Being foolish is going against conventional wisdom. Steve Jobs natural mother wanted him to go through college so that he could have a secured life. That was her condition for giving him up for adoption. His adopted parents fulfilled that promise and sent him to college. Steve Jobs wanted something else. He wanted to follow his passion, even though he did not fully know what that was then. He did not choose a lazy path by stopping his studies. He continued in college taking courses out of interest, and one of the courses influenced how he designed Apple later on. He worked harder to continue learning, and he chose what he wanted to learn rather than to be constrained by course requirements. By staying hungry and foolish, he went on to turn his passion into great inventions.

Our society has grown into one where we promote elitism. We encourage people to pursue good paper qualifications, sometimes at the expense of cultivating the love for learning. Learning is mostly to achieve the grades. We use our education system to sieve out the academically able to prepare a secure career path for them. Our system has evolved into one in which academic  results become linked to one’s value in society. This has led many parents to become highly anxious over the education of their children. Hence, I am not in favour of the high number of scholarships our government institutions and government-linked companies dish out yearly. It creates an unnatural sense of security and discourages risk taking. Our best talents are not prepared to take risks, whether in their professional jobs or to venture out on their own. And we wonder why we cannot produce innovative world-class companies.

As we continue to use our iPhones and iPads, or enjoy the next Pixar movie, let’s remember that the man who gave these to us advised us that sometimes, it is better to stay hungry and to stay foolish. Trust in your own instincts, follow your heart and if required, break free from the secure.

Thank you for what you have shown to the world. Very few people prepared for death as well as you did and lived life as fully as you did. Rest in peace, Steve Jobs.


15 comments on “Stay hungry, stay foolish – A great principle for life

  1. I like his way of thinking – focus and simplicity. The nicest things in this world are those most simple stuff, that even a 3 year old child can grasp. Those complicated stuff like those structured financial products are meant to cheat others and give people a false sense of sophistication. His departure is a great loss to the IT world.

    Wish that he will rest in peace.

  2. I agree with most of your your comments except the part on the high number of scholarships our government institutions and government-linked companies offer every year. There is basically nothing wrong with these scholarships as students need the funds to finance their studies. What is so bad about winning a scholarship? I somehow sense that you probably had some “unhappy encounters” with scholarship bodies that caused you to make the comment. Anyway, you are entitled to your own viewpoiint, just as I am entitled to my own viewpoint.

    • Nope, I do not have any unhappy encounter with any scholarship bodies nor anything against any scholar in particular. I feel our society has become too elitist. Too many scholarships have been given than necessary and schools and parents are gearing children to be scholars if they can to secure a safe career. Bursaries and non-bonded scholarships for those who cannot afford is fine.

  3. If what you said is true about “an overly large number of available scholarships result in a society being elitist”, that is a peculiar phenomenon unique to Singapore. In North America, the majority of students depend on scholarships of sorts to finance their university studies at both undergraduate and graduate levels; and their environment of risk-taking and entrepreneurship is vibrant. In Singapore, there are numerous students from poor families who need to secure scholarships to fund their university studies. The unintented outcome of landing on a secure job after the bonded or non-bonded scholarship has nothing to do with one’s risk-taking or entrepreneurial traits. I know of goverment or non-government scholars who went on to start their own companies after completing their scholarship bonds.

    • Apprecitate your feedback. I know some will diagree. Some have emailed me to agree as well. This is my personal view and not that of my Party. I have written about this in the past in ST Forum pages as well, reproduced in my other blog posts.

      I should clarify that I believe elitism is not caused by scholarships alone but the entire society mindset as well, from the way schools are structured to the way people are selected into government and government-linked organisations.

      There are also various factors leading to low risk taking and innovation culture here, of which the best talents here unwilling to take risk is one.

    • @Andrew Goh,

      I’ve been in the US for almost 7 years, first as a graduate student in a public university and then as a university researcher in another public university, so I am familiar with how US universities work.

      1. I don’t think the majority of undergraduates in the US depend on scholarships to finance their university studies. Most of them go into debt to finance their studies. Your assertion is incorrect.

      2. The vast majority of US scholarships are non-bonded. In fact, the idea of having bonded scholarships is very Singaporean. Most scholarship outside of Singapore, in countries such as the US, UK, Taiwan, South Korea, etc, are really awarded on the basis of academic merit and with the intent of promoting academic excellence.

      3. In fact, most scholarships that are awarded in Singapore come with a bond. That highly restricts the career options of many of our brightest Singaporeans. Upon coming to the US, one of things I immediately observed is how many fewer Singaporean postgraduate students (proportional to our population) there are compared to students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. When it comes to the number of undergraduates, we are comparable.

      I can’t really posit an alternative explanation as to why we have proportionally fewer people undertaking postgraduate studies compared to other culturally similar countries (Taiwan, HK and SK). It can’t be NS because Taiwan and SK have something similar. The only explanation that I can come up with is that a large percentage of bright Singaporeans are constantly being converted into excellent civil servants (instead of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, artists, etc in the non-governmental sector). This is not a bad thing but we may be overdoing it, as Ngiam Tong Dow and Tony Tan have repeatedly noted.

  4. So the issue(s) relating to risk-taking & entrepreneurship and perhaps even graduate training may not have been influenced by the proliferation of scholarships alone. It also depends on other factors such as the objectives of these scholarships offerred (e.g. to meet national manpower demands or to fill senior management positions in an organisation or research posts in academia); society’s culture and workplace’s challenges. A scholar friend of mine once said to me: “Bond or no-bond does not stop a scholar from being an entrepreneur. Only his willingness and commitment to be one!” How true! One of the numerous reasons why many Singapore’s scholarships tend to have a bond is perhaps economic and about equity, especially if the scholarhips are generous (e.g. several hundreds of thousands) and come from taxpayers’ monies. As far as I am aware, there are also some scholarships in Singapore which carry no bonds (e.g. President’s Scholarship). If a 19-year old student aspires to be a fighter pilot or a teacher and works hard to win an Air Force Scholarship or a Teaching Scholarship, it is difficult to understand how this can be perceived as “elitist”. By the way, the process of winning a scholarship is also a risky undertaking by itself. It may help to train the scholars to take more risks in future.

    • Most scholarships in Singapore require a bond. There are very very few bond-less scholarships in Singapore that have significant monetary value. The President’s Scholarship doesn’t carry a bond because it has no monetary value.

      The problem with the scholarship system in Singapore is that it tends to hoard talent in the public sector (as Tony Tan and Ngiam Tong Dow have pointed out). It commits people to a career in the public sector after graduation. There’s nothing wrong with it except that it makes it hard for the non-public sector to acquire talent. In some sense, we over-allocate manpower to the public sector. The problem is compounded by the fact that bright returning scholars are often not allocated to positions where they can best serve Singapore. I have a former classmate who was a former LKY math/science prize winner in JC and an OMS scholar. He served in MOM dealing with construction workers. Fed up after 5 years, upon finishing his bond, he left for the US to study digital media (it turns out that he was actually very good at the visual arts and that his academic endeavours in school merely masked his artistic talent).

      I, for one, think that a balanced society should have talented writers, linguists, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, sports people, politicians, etc. If you compare Singapore with HK/Taiwan, we seem to be heavy on excellent civil servants and very light on writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, etc.

      • @Julian, thank you for your comments. From the points raised, it seems that the Singapore’s scholarship landscape should henceforth evolve in two key directions: (1) Fewer government and government-linked scholarships than NOW since they are inclined to negatively affect risking-taking and entrepreneurial spirit amongst our young people; (2) More bond-less scholarships (or bursaries) to allow scholarship holders to venture in the private sector including being entrepreneurs. The overridng issue, as you have highlighted, is about the “healthy distribution of talents” between the public and private sectors. But that involves people’s personal career choices. No one (including your former classmate) is forced to take up an OMS scholarship if he or she does not wish to. No one (including scholars except maybe ex-criminals in some trade) is disallowed to be an entrepreneur if he or she wishes to do so. What the government can do is to create a “failrly conducive environment”, but certainly not a near-perfect environment for entrepreneurs that is free of problems, full of innovative talents, easy access to abundant resources…. I thought entrepreneurship is fundamentally about problem-solving?

  5. Hi, thought I would make a couple of points here:

    First, the assertion that scholarships are given out because Singaporeans require them to finance their studies is not altogether true. I have no statistics on hand here, and can only speak from personal experience – but most of my scholarship holding friends come from middle-upper class families, with the emphasis on “upper”. A couple of them had their parents put aside a sum of money at the onset so they could break their bonds immediately after graduating, and a few actually did. The ones who didn’t never completed their bonds anyway.

    Because of this, I can fully appreciate Mr. Yee’s point about “elitism”, in that getting a scholarship has become more about being associated with the prestige than it is about actually financing one’s education (with the collorary being, a six-year bond to a government institution or statutory board). Perhaps it is the schools I went to or the people I hang out with – but, I literally can count the number of scholarship holders who would not have made it financially on their own on the fingers of one hand.

    And given that about 70 to 80 percent of my scholarship-holding friends have broken their bonds or left before completing them, I am not sure I see the “equity” here. More so when these scholarships involved several hundreds of thousands and come from taxpayers’ money. Some people see it as a mere transaction, and wonder why anybody should be making a fuss if the money is returned to the state coffers. I’m not one of those.

    The hard truth here is this: increasingly, the students being awarded scholarships are those who have a headstart in life to begin with, and they are also the one who have the financial ability to pay off their bonds without so much as blinking an eyelid. It makes you wonder about the equality of opportunity being parried about. A friend of mine who works in a scholarship centre once quipped that these days, they need to ensure that at least one awardee is the child of a taxi-driver. I hope said friend was joking.

    Second, Julian is right to note the low numbers of Singaporeans who undertake graduate studies. Personally, I see it as a mindset problem, whereby education is seen merely as a means to an end. You need the paper qualifications to get a decent job, so you go about earning those qualifications. And since few jobs out there require a 2nd degree, few are inclined to go for it. Somehow, the idea that you can enjoy learning for learning’s sake, or further your studies because you have an interest in a certain subject, is lost on many Singaporeans.

    I did my undergraduate studies in the US as well (on a Father-Mother-Scholarship), and am preparing to return for grad school in another two to three years. But everytime I share my aspirations with others, they open their eyes really wide and ask me how much of a pay increment I expect to get by doing so. It is as if nothing is worth pursuing unless a certain monetary value can be ascribed to it. It has gotten to a point where I stop talking to anyone that’s Singaporean about these things because they just don’t seem to get it. Which suits me fine actually, since life is too short to be lived the way others want me to. =)

    But I don’t know if anyone else has noticed that for the large numbers of graduates we churn out, Singapore remains a very anti-intellectual society. And I think this has got something to do with how we view education. I don’t know many local grads in my age group, for instance, who can hold a decent conversation about social issues, international affairs, history, politics, or anything remotely worth discussing (at least to me). Just the other day, I had to explain to a friend – also a graduate – what the difference was between NMPs and NCMPs, Senior Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers of State. Imagine an American college grad who doesn’t know what a Senator or Congressman is, or what an Undersecretary or Deputy Undersecretary of any Department does. I’m not saying you have to know every one of their names, or their exact job scope, but surely an educated person can hazard a guess?

    Then again, maybe I just got unlucky and I’m certainly not saying that’s all that NUS/NTU/SMU is capable of churning out. After all, it was a local university that produced the owner of this blog. =)

    • It is probably true that “not a majority” of Singaporeans need scholarships to finance their university studies. This is of course to be expected as Singapore, being a first-world country, is generally an affluent society and has a GDP per capita in excess of US$50,000 or thereabouts. Nevertheless, scholarships will still be needed for a variety of reasons such as meeting organisation’s manpower needs in niche areas or providing education funds for students whose families can ill-afford the fees, just to name a few. The fact that Singapore’s scholarship system is “elitist” and has deteriorated to the situation where many scholars do not fully serve out their bonds is indeed a sorry state of affairs. Scholarship-awarding bodies have to manage the scholarship system to address these challenges, if they are not doing so now. From what I know, many scholarship-awarding bodies are already addressing these challenges to some extent such as shortening the bond period, allowing deferment of bond periods (e.g. to start a new venture) or treating scholars and non-scholars alike in their career progression (which should be based entirely on work performance).

      • Let me make a couple of comments.

        1. I went to NUS and I think I could hold a pretty decent conversation on local politics even before I had gone to the US. I don’t think the fact that many Singaporeans are disinterested in government has anything to do with our local universities. It is simply reflect how the PAP has depoliticized Singapore society in general. My sister who spent 4 years in an Australian university has absolutely no interest in politics or government.

        2. We have a smaller of proportion of graduates in Singapore compared to most other first-world cities of comparable size. By graduates, I mean people who have gone through at least 3 to 4 years of full-time university education.

        3. It is true that few jobs in Singapore require an advance degree and that means that there are fewer incentives for people to undertake postgraduate study. Conversely, the proportion of jobs that require advance degrees (at least in science and engineering) is higher in most developed countries. There is certainly a great industrial need for PhDs in engineering and science in the US (or even Taiwan and South Korea), compared to Singapore. This has to do with the nature of the industries in Singapore, which are more production-based (for the good of MNCs) than innovation-based. I am personally not very happy about this.

      • @Andrew Goh:”Nevertheless, scholarships will still be needed for a variety of reasons such as meeting organisation’s manpower needs in niche areas or providing education funds for students whose families can ill-afford the fees, just to name a few.”

        I am not so sure of the part about meeting manpower needs. Do HDB, PUB, PAS, CAAS, DSTA, etc really need to give out any scholarships? I would be challenged to come up with a list of specialized skills that their scholars can offer their organizations. These organizations can just recruit directly from the pool of fresh graduates.

  6. @Julian, thank you for your comments. Frankly speaking, I think pursuing graduate studies should preferably be based on one’s academic interests, and not on whether there are more or fewer jobs which require advanced degrees though we must acknowledge that job employability after doctoral studies is also an important issue. Like you, I completed my undergraduate degree in NUS and went on to pursue my graduate studies in the United Kingdom. The PhD process is a long one, especially in the US in comparison with UK. My experience in UK was not entirely a smooth one as I almost gave up mid-way because of supervision issues but fortunately complete it anyway. If I could turn back the clock, I would certainly not embark on the process, perhaps because I am neither fully-equipped nor particularly enjoyed the process. As you may know, the failure rate for PhD is actually quite high (over 30%) if you include the withdrawals.

  7. @Julian – Thanks for your comments.

    First, and just to clarify, I wasn’t intending to link the standards of our universities and people’s appreciation of politics – though, come to think about it, I may have given off that impression with the example I used. Our society is certainly depoliticized, and of course, even people from those that are not, may have little interest in issues of governance. I had friends from the US who couldn’t even be bothered to vote.

    What I really meant though, was common-sense stuff, including having a basic understanding of the branches of government (and the people who make them up).Not all graduates from US universities love to discuss politics either, but I’ll be hard-pressed to find one who doesn’t know what a senator or congressman is. Then again, I may be being too kind to Americans, or too hard on that friend of mine. After all, the NMP and NCMP systems are “uniquely Singpore”; you wouldn’t intuitively know what they were unless you followed the local political scene.

    Second, I agree that Singapore has a relatively small number of graduates compared to other first-world cities of the same size. But when I say “anti-intellectualism”, I refer to the attitudes of even the graduates, ie. people who have spent at least 3 to 4 years full-time at a university. Again, I can only speak from personal experience, and the ones I’ve had with those from the 25 to 30 age group (ie. mine) were pretty much a disaster. Simply put, their topics of discussion revolve almost exclusively around shopping, dining, cellphone trends, and the latest programs on TV. Try recommending them a good book and they’ll tell you, “I don’t read”. Ask them what they think about the latest headlines, and they’ll say, “That includes the newspapers too”. I do not presume that this is reflective of every local grad, and I apologize if I have offended anyone along the way. But too many encounters of this kind can’t help but leave me wondering. Of course, there may be a much simpler explanation, which is that I really need to make new friends and/or look for another work environment…

    Third, you’re definitely right about countries like the US requiring advanced degrees for a higher number of jobs. It is also not restricted to the science and engineering professions. To work in a thinktank or NGO in Washington DC, for example, the unspoken entry requirement is a Masters. You can certainly find jobs with only a first degree, but these are few and far between, and it’s relatively hard for you to be competitive. I understand that’s the case for certain jobs in the public sector as well.

    @Andrew – Thanks also for your comments, but I’m not sure I agree with that bit about awarding scholarships to meet specialized manpower demands. How much of what people study is actually linked to the careers they pursue?

    We tend not to dispute the SAF scholarship because of its prestige. But a joke I sometimes hear is that military scholarships are given for students to major in every discipline that doesn’t matter in the long-run. I’m not sure if scholarships awarded to read political science, economics, and so on, have much bearing on military vocations. It’s a different ballgame from say, studying engineering and signing on as a combat or air engineer. While there shouldn’t be an issue with financing the education of folks who want to be fighter pilots and commandos, the reality is that most of these scholarships are academic in nature. Not every SAF scholar goes to West Point; many, in fact, don’t.

    Considering that scholars are typically fast-tracked on their careers, it’s no surprise we end up in a situation whereby they are perceived – justifiably or not – to be rewarded for their good grades, than for any command ability or operational skill. After all, their scholarships were awarded, based on academic results, for them to engage in academic pursuits. This, coupled with the fact that there are different career prospects for different classes of scholars, creates a morale issue – not just for the non-scholar, but for the less elite one as well.

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