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Purpose & Humility

By Ellen Irie

In the past few days, we have been drawn to the somber news of Steve Jobs’ passing. We listen to the story of his life, finding inspiration from its twists and turns. Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement address, in particular, caught my attention, with its straight-forward references to the certainty of death and how to gain inspiration from death’s imminence.

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Jobs posed. This question is not just about personal gratification; it is about life purpose. What am I going to do today, tomorrow and the next day that has lasting significance? Jobs places his question in the context of the certainty that we all come and go in this world. Death is not to be feared but rather embraced as a source of motivation and in recognition that we can make important contributions that will endure beyond any one of us.

Similarly, I was also moved by the passing of Betty Ford earlier this year. In my office I have a photograph of Ford posing barefoot on the Cabinet Room table on Gerald Ford’s last day in office. It is a vision of power, grace and service—a pose of offering.

Like Jobs, Ford’s life was full of significant twists and turns. “I was an ordinary woman who was called on stage at an extraordinary time,” she has been quoted as saying. Ford took her own personal adversity and turned it outward, leaving her legacy in the Betty Ford Center as a place of comfort and healing for others. She built upon her own shortcomings for the greater good.

What do the powerful life stories of Steve Jobs and Betty Ford have to say to those of us working in and around the nonprofit sector? Whether we are toiling at a nonprofit to feed the hungry or nurture children in need, striving to be effective stewards of philanthropic resources, or supporting the efficiency and effectiveness of the sector, we can draw inspiration from their examples. They compel us to tackle uncharted territory while maintaining the humility of seeing individual efforts as part of the larger whole.

Purpose propels us forward; humility keeps us real.