A Lesson From Steve Jobs

Amid all the fun of this past weekend—seeing Breaking Dawn in an empty suburban theater, going bar-hopping with my newishly legal younger sister, consuming what probably amounted to an entire pie—I managed to make my way through the final pages of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, about which I remained so fervently excited that my family has now heard more than their fair share of Steve Jobs fun facts. (I’ve become pretty adept at inserting such facts into otherwise unrelated conversations.)

I’ve already spent enough time on the various degrees of love that I have for this book, my inaugural biography and probably one of the best I’ll ever read. So in the interest of sparing everyone another 1,000 words of adulation, I just wanted to close out my two weeks with Steve Jobs by sharing one last not-quite-as-fun-fact, one that ultimately shaped my perception of Jobs more than his family life, business dealings or tempestuous personality: Jobs always suspected he would die young.

Around 1983, Apple was being headed up by a former Pepsi executive with whom Jobs ultimately clashed, John Sculley. It was to Sculley (and eventually to other people in his life) that Jobs confessed his belief that he needed to, in Isaacson’s words, “accomplish things quickly so that he would make his mark on Silicon Valley history.”

“‘We all have a short period of time on this earth,’ he told the Sculleys as they sat around the table [one] morning. ‘We probably only have the opportunity to do a few things really great and do them well. None of us has any idea how long we’re going to be here, nor do I, but my feeling is I’ve got to accomplish a lot of these things while I’m young.'”

This suspicion on Jobs’s part hardly excuses some of his rather vicious management techniques, and in some ways makes his relative distance from his family, in particular his oldest daughter Lisa, even more upsetting. Generally speaking, when people are diagnosed with a terminal illness (which Jobs had not been at the time of his conversation with Sculley), most gravitate towards their loved ones. That said, Jobs’s general struggle with human emotion makes it unsurprising that the premonition of his own mortality made him focus on his work.

In the aftermath of Jobs’s death, there was a lot of cult-like worship of his accomplishments (Bill Gates can only hope for such adoration.) But there were also equally emphatic reminders of Jobs’s fallibility, the most aggressive of which was probably the Gawker post I mentioned in my earlier review. After finishing Isaacson’s book, I understand both views.

Although Jobs was arrogant, although anecdotes in the book suggest he was at times knowingly malicious, and although he died relatively young, his story is still a hopeful one. Perhaps aided by one too many glasses of red wine, I found myself getting emotional as I read about Apple this weekend. Not because I’m generally sensitive when it comes to gadgetry, but because the rest of us can only hope to accomplish as much in our lifetimes; because we all aspire to see make our dreams come true.

This isn’t to say that the fragility of life entitles us to be jerks, and there are many many ways in which Steve Jobs is not a role model. But at a time when our truly solitary moments are few and far between, Jobs’s sometimes isolationist approach to life did inspire in me an appreciation for myopic focus, for unapologetic pursuit of one’s ambitions, and for a refusal to compromise on the things you truly believe in. Now, one could argue that his downfall was “truly believing” in too many things, including the color of machines in his company’s factories, or the specific curvature of the plastic molds on Apple computers. But even if those idiosyncrasies didn’t help, they seem not to have hurt. Apple’s current market capitalization is nearly $350 billion and it stands to become the No. 1 seller of PCs next year. It would be hard to argue that Jobs’s insistence on perfection hasn’t ultimately become the company’s hallmark.

So today I’m going to be an asshole, to stick to my guns, suffer no fools and insist on perfection. Because who knows how much longer I’ll have to achieve my dreams. I’ve already wasted far too much time on pie.

2 thoughts on “A Lesson From Steve Jobs”

  1. OK, maybe I’ll borrow that one too. Biographies aren’t my favorite genre but if you think it’s that good, might be worth a read. And I have, more or less, grown up with both Jobs and Apple…

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