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The Only Permanence is Impermanence

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In one of the more iconic graduation speeches in history, Steve Jobs reflected not on the massive successes of his company, or of the power of technology, or even the importance of a broad liberal arts education. No, his prime purpose in the speech was to meditate on death.

Steve Jobs wasn’t a Stoic (he practiced and studied Buddhism). Biographies show that he wasn’t a particularly great person. However, surviving a brush with cancer—an aggressive form that nearly cost him his life—had given the man of tremendous perspective a clearer view of the power of his own life. This passage is worth examining:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…

…This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.

It’s almost as if he is channeling Marcus Aurelius: “Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.”

We need to remember, as Jobs did and as Marcus did, that the permanent thing is impermanence. Money, power, fame, influence—these are ephemeral. As is our very existences on this planet. That there’s real wisdom to be found in the notion that you’re a speck in the universe’s broad history, and that your time is limited. Accept that it is, and you’ll open yourself up to a clarity—and possibly even a contentment—that you didn’t know.