The Legacy of Steve Jobs
For Steve Jobs, it was about creating magical products - things that were as much a part of his fancy as they were part of the real world.
If you had to name Steve Jobs' single most important contribution to mankind, the one thing he left us that's more valuable than anything else, what would it be? As you ponder that question, it might be helpful to consider some of what we've learned about Jobs from his biographer, Walter Isaacson.
Jobs had approached Isaacson in 2004 about writing his biography, and beginning in 2009 Isaacson conducted over 40 interviews with Jobs, the last one just a few weeks before Jobs' death on Oct. 5. Isaacson's book, titled simply, "Steve Jobs," went on sale on Monday. I haven't read it yet, but I did watch Steve Kroft's interview with Isaacson on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. It was a fascinating interview, and in it Isaacson shared a lot about Jobs' character, and about what made him tick.
Kroft made it clear to his "60 Minutes" audience that Isaacson had set out to write a book that truly captured who Jobs was, warts and all. If there was any question about that, Isaacson put it to rest early in the interview:
[Jobs] was very petulant, he was very brittle, he could be very, very mean to people at times. He was a pretty abrasive, and in some ways cantankerous, character. Jobs becomes wildly rich, makes about 100 people millionaires when Apple goes public. One of the things he does, though, that still caused a little ill will, there were old friends, he used to be with them in his parents' garage. They were working at Apple, but they hadn't quite gotten to the level of chief engineer, so they got no stock options. [Apple co-founder Steve] Wozniak, being incredibly generous, is giving away his stock options, trying to make everybody a millionaire. And Steve Jobs is very strict on who can get the stock options.
Kroft noted that one of those people who didn't get the stock options was Daniel Kottke, one of Jobs' oldest friends who had been with him during his short time at Reed College in Oregon, during his seven-month trek across India to seek spiritual enlightenment, and in the garage of the home of Jobs' parents, where Apple was founded. Isaacson picked it up from there:
And at one point [Kottke] tries to go to Steve, and just starts crying. But Steve can be very cold about these things. Finally, one of the engineers at Apple said, "We have to take care of your buddy Daniel. I'll give him some stock if you match it," or whatever. And Jobs says, "Yeah, I'll match it. I'll give zero, you give zero."
[Jobs] had a great Mercedes sports coupe with no license plate on it-that was his affectation. I said, "Why don't you have a license plate?" At one point he said, "I don't want people following me." I said, "Having no license plate is actually more noticeable." He said, "Yeah, you're probably right. You know why I don't have a license plate?" I said, "Why?" He said, "Because I don't have a license plate." I think he felt the normal rules just shouldn't apply to him. And he had his little everyday acts of rebellion that were showing, "Hey, I'm a little bit different."
Jobs' conviction that the rules didn't apply to him was also his license to park in handicapped spots as a healthy, young man. His callousness may have reached its peak when, despite having been given up for adoption by an unwed couple himself, he denied paternity after his longtime girlfriend gave birth to his daughter Lisa, and he refused to provide support until the courts intervened.
And then came the part of the interview that covered the dimension of Jobs' life that was most important of all. Kroft noted that in his final meetings with Isaacson, Jobs would occasionally bring up the subject of death. We heard Jobs' own voice, recorded during one of Isaacson's meetings with him:
I saw my life as an arc, that it would end. And compared to that, nothing mattered. You're born alone, you're going to die alone, and does anything else really matter? I mean, what exactly is it that you have to lose, Steve, you know? There's nothing.
It appeared that towards the end, Jobs was beginning to get it. Kroft asked Isaacson if he had any discussions with Jobs that day or at any other time about an afterlife. Isaacson's response:
I remember sitting in his back yard, in his garden, one day, and he started talking about God. He said, "Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don't. I think it's 50-50, maybe. But ever since I've had cancer I've been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe it's because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die, it doesn't just all disappear. This wisdom you've accumulated, somehow it lives on." Then he paused for a second and he said, "Yeah, but sometimes I think it's just like an on/off switch-click, and you're gone." He paused again and he said, "That's why I don't like putting on/off switches on Apple devices."
So I have a hunch that what Jobs was thinking about as life ebbed from his body in those last moments of consciousness wasn't the cheering of the crowd at a triumphant product launch, or the gratification of knowing that he changed the way we use computers and other devices. I have a hunch it is far more likely that he was thinking about his family, and his friends, and maybe even the tear-stained face of Daniel Kottke.
The most valuable thing that Steve Jobs left us wasn't a product, or an ecosystem of products, or a new way of engaging with our media, or anything else that has anything whatsoever to do with Apple. The most valuable thing that Steve Jobs left us was a reminder. He reminded us that we only get one shot in this life to strive to develop the attributes latent within us - attributes like selflessness and humility, kindness and generosity, mercifulness and compassion - that we will need in the next world to advance ever closer to God. He reminded us that we have the capacity and the chance to develop those qualities long before we find ourselves reflecting on the loss of a chance that was ours to seize and that would never come again. A more precious gift is difficult to fathom. For that, Steve, more than anything else, we thank you.