Friday, October 28, 2011

Nothing to Lose

I've heard a lot about Steve Jobs' "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish" commencement speech, particularly the "nothing to lose" sentiment it seems to carry.  Far be it from me to criticize a great man - which is what he was - for how he coped with his own disease, but I have to disagree with him on a few points, and I do want to question where he was coming from.  Particularly due to this part:

"I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now."

That was 2005.   In 2011, Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer.  He was not "fine now." 

How would his speech have been different, had he known he was still sick?  A man who has stared down death and survived sees things differently from a man who is still staring down death.  While it sounds like a pretty good idea to live each day as one would their last, it's pithy and unrealistic.  Is there anyone among us who truly lives for the moment?  Anyone who gives no regard to tomorrow, and the off-chance that the sun may rise again?  How many of us look in the mirror each morning and think, "no, this is not how I would spend my final day," simply because we work a full-time job and aren't one of the blessed few who can earn a living doing something we love more than anything else in the world? 

I don't have "nothing to lose."  I have a lot to lose.  Even if I somehow beat this cancer, through the treatments I've endured, the surgery, the radiation, the chemotherapy, my life has been shortened.  Maybe by years, maybe by decades.  Each day that I have left has become a larger portion of my life.  The man who has less feels more acutely each loss, no matter how small.  And sure, were I as wealthy as Jobs I might well quit my job and spend the rest of my days in hedonistic adventure, truly spending each as I would my last.  But I'm not.  I'm doing well enough for myself.  I get by, with some money left over to save for a rainy day.  Now that it's started to pour, I'm glad that I did.  Yet I didn't return to work so quickly after my surgery, and continue to work through my radiation and chemotherapy treatment simply for lack of anything better to do.  I went back to work because I still need to support myself.  If I were to walk out and dedicate the rest of my life to myself, that'd be fun until the money ran out, and then I'd be homeless.

It's not that much different from if I were healthy.  It's just hit me a few decades earlier than usual. 

I know that Jobs was not talking about such logistical details.  He seemed to be advocating risk rather than fiscal irresponsibility.  To that, all I can say is that it's much easier to take a risk when you can afford to fail, and when you have time to rebuild. 

Then again, I've always been really bad at taking risks, and that has held me back from experiencing life. 

"As you grow older, you'll find the only things you regret are the things you didn't do."
- Zachary Scott

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