Soon we will close out another year by celebrating the holidays and taking stock of our lives, reflecting on what went well, and what didn’t. And, as always, George Bailey will help us through it.
We all know George Bailey, the everyman protagonist of the classic holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And we know George’s story – how his boyhood dreams of experiencing the world beyond his hometown of Bedford Falls are crushed by the realities of a father’s untimely death, a shaky economy, and his own inability to put his craving for independence and adventure ahead of his responsibilities. We all know the scene where George, feeling a failure, considers taking his own life by jumping into an icy river, and how his guardian angel, Clarence, helps him evaluate his life in a way that forgives the derailing of ambitious dreams in favor of an ordinary, decent life.
I wonder whether we will see George any differently this year, so soon after the death of Steve Jobs.
Much has been remembered about Mr. Jobs recently, and, as the end of year approaches, nothing seems more apt than Jobs’s philosophy of life choices. Most of us have heard excerpts of the commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford University half a dozen years ago, after he had already faced his mortality through a first bout of illness:
“[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.... Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.... Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
His language is powerful and inspiring – and we know it worked for him. When Jobs trusted in his heart and intuition, it led to great success – money, fame, prestige, respect, satisfaction – the kind of stuff ordinary people dream about.
So how do we square Jobs’s determined “don’t waste your time living someone else’s life” advice with Bailey’s “no one is a failure who has friends” message? In one sense, George did let the noise of other people's opinions drown out his inner voice. George did not do what he wanted – he did not leave Bedford Falls wiping the dust off his feet as he left. But we already know what would have happened if he had. George’s nemesis, Mr. Potter, would have turned Bedford Falls into a hedonistic Gomorrah where the mean of spirit (think Nick the bartender) reaped profits and the majority stayed down and out.
Perhaps Bailey and Jobs reflect the values of their eras – the altruistic, wartime 1940s (when many put their inner voices second) versus our modern fascination with self-actualization. Or maybe they reflect the nature of their settings – ordinary, naive Bedford Falls versus successful, ambitious Silicon Valley.
Yet I doubt George Bailey and Steve Jobs would have been at odds – that Bailey would have thought of Jobs as he did Mr. Potter, “a scurvy little spider spinning its web,” or that Jobs would have thought Bailey a chump like Potter did (“all of the Baileys were chumps.”) Their messages are not necessarily inconsistent.
Even though George’s life was ordinary and lacking in great achievement and material riches, Clarence helped George realize how the dots of his life connected in hindsight, how the unfolding of his life had meaning and purpose and perhaps more direction from his heart and intuition than he thought.
George Bailey had, in fact, listened to his inner voice and become the person he truly wanted to be. It wasn’t the person of his boyhood dreams – the world traveler, the successful professional – but rather the person devoted to selfless service and honoring commitments to others. Following that inner voice, even in the face of his ambitions – and feelings of failure for not living up to them – had taken great courage. And in so doing, he found true satisfaction and fulfillment.
This year, as you watch George’s family and friends sing Auld Lang Syne, remember Jobs’s words. What if following your heart and intuition means that your preconceived dreams may not always come true? Just think of the courage needed then. Yes, we may see George a little differently this year – thanks to Steve Jobs.
Ann Kraemer is a lawyer, consultant, and writer.