The myth of Steve Jobs

Today, technology lost another titan: Dennis Ritchie, the guy who basically invented the bricks that form every bit of our digital lives. It’s arguable (and even likely) that his direct societal influence was greater than Jobs’s. But his passing was not accompanied by the same rending of garments, and I’m pretty sure I know why.

I already waxed melancholy about Steve Jobs back in January. Needless to say, I was deeply and inexplicably affected by his death.

My dad visited that evening, and I shared the news, and also that I was surprised by my sense of loss. His response puzzled me a bit:

“Whenever I hear people say that they’re ‘strangely affected’ by the death of a total stranger, it’s because they’ve projected some piece of themselves onto that person. They’re grieving the loss of some part of themselves.”

I nodded, not entirely in agreement. He continued, “So what is it that you see in him?”

“I see a guy with the capability to change the world and the guts to actually do it.”

“Well, maybe you should examine that.”

It struck me today that I, and many others, had invested deeply into the mythical archetype that Steve Jobs represented. In a very literal way, he was a real-life manifestation of the Hero’s Journey story that resonates with so many of us.

Abandoned by his birth parents. Given few advantages. Called to adventure. Accompanied by a faithful friend and advisor. Brought low just as he thought he’d achieved victory. Returned at the darkest hour, with the newfound elixir, obtained through great difficulty. The elixir brings lasting victory. This victory becomes a boon to his fellow man.

We revel in that story. We never tire of it. We want to be the Seeker, the one who brings fire to the people. We dream of our own call to adventure. But most of us hear a call to adventure many times in our lives, yet we have a thousand excuses to turn it down. But Steve Jobs didn’t. He answered the call, again and again, and he truly, without a doubt, changed the world.

What gave him this capacity? Why did he change the world many times over?

Was it luck? He certainly had several lucky breaks, meeting Woz not least among them.

Was it genius? There’s no doubt that he’d have been the smartest guy in the room in some very large rooms.

Nope, it was that thing. Namely, the absence of that thing. You know, that thing that stops you from doing something crazy? Call it fear, reason, realism, laziness, whatever you want. But it’s there, and if you’re like me, you’ve sensed it between you and your call to adventure, at least once.

I would dare say that the largest difference between the “average person” and a Steve Jobs (or any true Seeker) is the wisdom and the guts to be absolutely dismissive about whatever that thing is. Because if we don’t, that thing (which has little permanent meaning or value) dictates the terms of the precious few moments we have to spend on Earth, and we’ll never get anything meaningful done.

So yes, I’m sad for the loss of the man and the myth he represented to me.

He was our Seeker. He brought fire to the people. And now he’s gone. My heart goes to his family, who have suffered a very real loss, and I am going to be OK with mourning the loss of the myth for a bit.

When Steve Jobs passed away, I didn’t lose the ability to become a Seeker, to bring fire to the people, or to change the world. My problem is, and has been, that I still don’t know what that thing is that’s stopping me.

Maybe I should examine that.

A few words on Steve Jobs


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I found myself strangely affected by the news that Steve Jobs was taking a leave of absence. I don’t know the guy. I just buy his stuff. We never found time for a personal chat during my brief stint as an Apple Store employee.

So why did the news make me so melancholy, even to this minute?

It might have something to do with the fact that it was his commencement speech at Stanford that planted the seed in my mind that life is beautifully and tragically ephemeral. I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, but over the past few years, this mindset has really shifted me to strive to live a life of purpose.

It only occurs to me now that, just as he saw a vision of the future at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, he saw another 8 years ago with touch/gesture-based computing, and he’s been absolutely driven to see it take hold. It’s happening now, and it’s irreversibly changing the way people interact with computers. The iPad isn’t some gadget, it’s a puzzle piece in Jobs’s vision of literally altering the future of humanity.

Is it egotistical for him to believe that if he didn’t bring about these visions of computing, from personal, to graphical, to touch, that they would never have existed (or would have been horribly mangled)? Yes, definitely. Is it true? Almost assuredly.

When Jobs and Gates were asked about legacy a few years back, Steve brushed off the question. I thought it was odd, but I get it now.

The term “legacy” tends to be associated with the question, “How will I be remembered?” Alfred Nobel didn’t want to be known as a merchant of death, and he did indeed radically change his legacy. Bill Gates turned his focus 180 degrees, from taking money from rich Westerners to raising the standard of living for the world’s poorest 10%.

Steve Jobs has no time for that. For him, the idea of legacy is probably a distraction, because he goes into work every day with the intention of changing the world, not the way he’ll be talked about after he’s gone.

Jobs says that he once had to choose between an “important” business meeting and a date with the woman that would someday become his wife. His thought was that if it were his last day on earth, he’d choose seeing her. So he did.

What would I do if today were my last? Would I be doing the same things with my family? Is there enough of my own mission in my work that I’d still be there? If not, why? What am I going to do about it?

It’s important to note that Jobs doesn’t say “live each day like it’s your last.” He just poses the question and says that when he has too many consecutive days where he doesn’t like the answer, it’s time to change something.

If you haven’t watched his speech, please do. He implored those students (and by extension, me, and you) to not spend your days living someone else’s life, because there’s so precious little of our own.

I’m grateful for the lesson, and hopeful that Steve will recover fully and to continue to embody it.