'The only way to do great work is to love what you do': 3 key takeaways from Laurene Powell Jobs' UPenn commencement speech

"When life opens a door — as it will for all of you — we must be prepared to walk through it."

Laurene Powell Jobs addresses the graduating class of 2021 at the University of Pennsylvania.
Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, Laurene Powell Jobs — a philanthropist and the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs — gave a commencement speech to the graduating class of her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

Like most such speeches, Powell Jobs' address hit upbeat notes about boundless opportunity. But it also acknowledged the adversity the Covid pandemic presented to students in their final semesters before graduation. "In times like these, times of hardship and uncertainty, it can feel like the world is conspiring to shrink our sense of possibility, to sour us to the daring adventure of life," Powell Jobs said. "I'm here to say, 'Don't let it.'"

Powell Jobs credited much of her success in life to the education she received at UPenn. She learned key life lessons from the world of business, she said, from her first failed start-up as a freshman delivering campus birthday cakes to her founding of an organic, vegetarian food company.

She also gave career advice, citing the words of her late husband. "Steve used to say: Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work," she said. "And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. And while you're doing it, love who you do it for, and love who you are while you do it.

"Let his words guide you as they've guided me."

Here are three takeaways from her speech.

Treasure 'your sense of possibility'

At several points in her address, Powell Jobs emphasized the importance of imagination, noting that her creativity helped her overcome life's challenges and chart a new path for herself. "I wish that same appetite for adventure, that same readiness for surprise and delight, for every one of you," Powell Jobs said. "Your sense of possibility will always be a great spiritual resource. Take good care of it."

Among the examples Powell Jobs cited was her first job out of college, on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs in the 1980s. While she had originally wanted to join the Peace Corps, "financial reality" — including student debt — sent her into the world of finance.

"It wasn't the Peace Corps, but I did learn survival skills," Powell Jobs said. "And I did something very important to me: I supported myself in New York City, and after a few years, paid off all my student loans."

I did something very important to me: I supported myself in New York City, and after a few years, paid off all my student loans.
Laurene Powell Jobs

In addition to giving her financial security, her job at Goldman Sachs gave Powell Jobs license to take career risks. When she decided to leave the company, her boss assured her that there would always be a place for her at the bank if she chose to return.

"He gave me, for the first time in my life, a safety net to fall back on," she said. "With this safety net, I had permission to imagine the world not as dangerous but as wondrous; to dream up different life paths. And from that moment on, I thought differently about what was possible to accomplish."

When life opens a door, 'we must be prepared to walk through'

Powell Jobs has often taken the less obvious path to accomplishing personal and professional goals. As the Berlin Wall was being torn down in the late 1980s, she and her friend, both of whom were in graduate school and "had no money," wanted to visit. They devised a plan to fund their trip to Germany by selling shares to former colleagues, she said. In exchange for their money, Powell Jobs and her friend promised to come back with pieces of the wall for each shareholder.

In another unexpected choice, many years later, she stepped down from leading Terravera, the organic vegetarian food company she'd started, so she could dedicate herself to philanthropy.

By that point in her career, Powell Jobs had taken Terravera from its start-up roots to supplying Whole Foods and Safeway stores in Northern California with prepared food on a daily basis. But an experience mentoring underprivileged high schoolers sent her in a new direction, pushing her to start a nonprofit that advised them on how to get into college.

Stepping back from Terravera "was a big life decision," she said. "But when life opens a door — as it will for all of you — we must be prepared to walk through it."

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Powell Jobs said her experience in philanthropy has confirmed the importance of finding ways, however small, to give back.

"All of life is reciprocity, filled with the circular joy in giving and grace in receiving. It's important to partner your joy with humility," she said. "Humility and ambition need not contradict each other. We should all be ambitious to be good stewards of our planet, and good caretakers of one another."

Discover 'your own practices' and make them 'regular' habits

Powell Jobs closed her commencement address by putting her own spin on Socrates' aphorism, "An unexamined life is not worth living."

"The examination of a life is not an idea, it is a daily practice," Powell Jobs said. "Discover or create your own practices. They do not have to be grandiose, but they must be regular."

"Infuse your values into every part of what you do, and how you live," she continued. "Your values should be like your fingerprints: proof of where you have been and what you have touched."

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