“One comfort is, that Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him.” — Thomas Carlyle, On Great Men
The front page of Apple’s website on Wednesday, October 5, 2011, featured a single image — a black and white portrait of Steve Jobs with the dates, 1955-2011. Simple, elegant, minimalist, the photograph had the classic style of an Apple ad. One almost expected to scroll down and see the words, “Think Different.”
Rarely does a CEO garner such respect and affection, much less one who built and headed a corporation with more cash in the bank than some countries. But then Steve Jobs was more than a businessman, more than an entrepreneur. His death at 56 cut his arc of brilliance before it reached its apogee and robbed us of the chance to see what he might be like in 20 years. As the accolades poured in, and the flowers, notes and apples were laid at the doors of Apple stores around the world, it reminded us that this kind of attention usually follows the death of royalty (Diana) or rock stars (John Lennon).
But Jobs was neither. A man with a child’s sense of wonder, he was the quintessential American success story. Adopted at birth by a working-class couple, he dropped out of college 17 years later because it was eating up his parents’ life savings—and he didn’t have a clue what he wanted to be anyway. Three years later he and Steve Wozniak built a prototype of an Apple computer in his parents’ garage. Within 10 years he had a $2 billion company, he and his pirate team had built the first personal computer, and in an ironic twist, he’d been fired from his own company by the man he brought in to help guide it. He went on to found NeXT and Pixar, and finally to return to Apple where he brought out the iPod, the Macbook, iTunes, the iPad and most famously, the iPhone. He died at home, surrounded by family, the day after the latest iteration, the 4S, was announced.
By now the essential elements of Jobs’ professional life are well-known, much as we know the beginning and the end of the Beatles. Like the Beatles he lived most of his adult life in the hot glare of media attention while he guarded his private life with a tenacity rarely seen in the celebrity world. But when Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs is released later this October, much of that life will no doubt be revealed at last.
By many accounts Jobs was mercurial and ruthless, a perfectionist with an eye for detail and the capacity to drive employees to despair with his demands. But many also speak of his kindness, his love for his wife of 20 years and their four children, his willingness to mentor those young entrepreneurs in whom he saw some of his early fire and brashness.
When I saw the announcement of his death my eyes filled with tears. In the days since I’ve found myself returning time and again to his image and life in odd moments between classes or when I’ve been waiting at a stoplight. I’ve wondered what his children and wife are going through, how his closest colleagues will feel when they walk the halls of 1 Infinite Loop, the Cupertino headquarters of Apple, and especially, what he must have thought about in the last painful weeks of his life. I have asked myself why he holds such fascination for so many of us and who he will become in the psyche of 21st century people.
Already he is spoken of in the same breath as Edison, Walt Disney, and Leonardo da Vinci. David Pogue, in his regular column on tech products in the New York Times, speculated on the chances another young visionary like Jobs is even now working in a garage somewhere, and put the odds at “Zero. Absolute zero.” People like Pogue, who have known Jobs for decades and have sometimes disagreed vociferously with decisions he made, see him as a rare creature, one of the few who deserve to be called “genius.”
FIrst, Jobs brought together technology and art in ways that no one had thought of before. The products of his design teams were the result of his own visions and imagination. Someone recently described the process of design at Apple as stripping away layer after layer of clutter and chaos until they arrive at the luminescent, irreducible pearl in the center. Most corporations don’t allow that kind of time to be spent in reduction instead of addition, but then most corporations are content to repeat what works until well after it doesn’t anymore. To open the box on a new product from Apple is to witness the epitome of presentation. Every part of the packaging has a purpose, every part contributes to the whole, and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. It makes you want to keep the packaging as art in itself.
Second, Jobs never looked back. It was his view that if you’d succeeded at something it was time to throw yourself in the deep end and splash around until you found a new lifeline. He grabbed the idea of the mouse from PARC, made it standard in the industry and then moved us away from it to something ever more intuitive and natural—the gestures of hands and fingers. He took away our CD-ROMS, our external hard drives, cables, and flash drives. In their place he gave us elegance and simplicity. “It just works” was a refrain that constantly came through Apple’s marketing and advertising.
Third, no one in recent memory has both commanded a corporation and put himself in the skin of an average consumer. Jobs had an uncanny ability to think like a customer, to focus on the results wanted, and then to provide the means to get there.
Fourth, Jobs could see not just what would sell, and not just what would make something good even better, but something that no one had thought of yet. Even back in the Apple II days, when most people couldn’t imagine computers doing more than keeping recipes and shopping lists, Jobs was designing a personal computer to be a “bicycle for the mind.” He had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up sometimes, but more often than not he made us want the future before we could understand it—and when we did it was so natural it made us feel like we’d invented it ourselves. That’s called vision and almost nobody has it. Bush the First derided ‘the vision thing’ because he saw it like most corporate managers do as something a committee cuts and pastes together when they’ve run out of ideas.
Finally, Jobs raised the bar on performance so high that he made others want to do better. That’s charisma. Leaders want it, but it’s not for sale. Seldom seen, it’s the result, I think, of a person who embodies a cluster of paradoxes: power that surrounds itself with others who are brilliant; confidence without egotism; purpose with a sense of humor; and enthusiasm without mania. It’s the Tao in action. We are fortunate to have shared time and space with a man who found it—as we all may—inside himself.