Broken Promises: Following Your Dreams, and the 99 percent

This speech by Steve Jobs has been posted in many places over the last 24 hours:


It is a strange speech: quite moving, personal, modest, and thoughtful. But in the end it’s a “follow your dreams” speech, and as such is quite a contrast to another Internet event of the moment, the very moving stories being posted at We are the 99 percent.

“Follow your dreams” invokes a cosmic bargain (fortune favours the brave) and it also invokes a social bargain: that if you work hard, and have a little luck, society will ensure that your efforts are rewarded. Meanwhile, the "we are the 99%" posters “sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy – work hard, play by the rules, get ahead – has been broken, and they want to see it restored” (Felix Salmon, quoted here).

So nothing against the guy, but over the next few days I’ll think more about what the 99%-ers say than what Steve Jobs said at Stanford. One of the stories he tells is of dropping out of college and, instead, monitoring courses independently. It's an inspiring story, but the contrast to this post, made today, is glaring.

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  1. I’m looking forward to this topic. “Follow your dreams” is a very progressive point of view not shared by most conservatives who subscribe to something more along the lines of “follow a sustainable path”. I think you might be touching on a key aspect of the left-vs-right divide.

  2. interesting post.
    There’s clear survivorship bias here. We don’t get lectures from people who followed their dreams and went bust.
    And there’s a question as to how influential Steve Jobs has been, and what his contribution was. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel discusses the questionable significance of inventors compared to a more general march of progress.

  3. I’d call “follow your dreams” more a romantic notion than a progressive one. If the assumption is that you can follow them within the current social structure (the American Dream?) then that’s a status quo message, and hence conservative.

  4. Exactly, survivorship bias. Like the joke about an athlete never saying “Jesus made me fumble”, we need to hear a speech “I followed my dreams, and ended up broke, homeless, and hungry”. Obviously, we all can’t be beloved billionaires (or even unbeloved billionaires). I think lurking behind that phrasing in this case is a version of the old concept that the rich are successful due to their superior personal character, presented here as a tenacity with regard to goals (i.e. “visionary”).

  5. and, just to make the obvious point, Steve Jobs didn’t succeed because he followed his dreams, but because he persuaded 50,000 other people to follow his dreams and not theirs.

  6. Steve Jobs died last week. RIP.

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