Steve Jobs, and the Insanely Great

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Steve Jobs steps down as Apple CEO, so the news reflects on his career. Best CEO in American business history? Maybe. Most visionary? Probably. But his contribution is hard to pin down. What makes him so great when other very successful people aren’t? Jobs was never a great engineer or programmer. Did Apple invent personal computing? No. Did they make it popular, to the exclusion of everyone else? Nope. Did they invent all the cool technology that made the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, etc. possible? Not at all. Were they ever the most popular? Not even close. So the inability to specify the nature of Jobs’ contribution has left a lot of people, especially those who were never enamored of Apple’s products, wondering what the big deal is.

But none of this has anything to do with why people respect, admire, and even idolize Steve Jobs.

They respect him because when it comes to technology he always right, even when he’s wrong. When he says something is garbage, he is right. When he says something is good. It is. Jobs is the man whose mind coincides with the zeitgeist almost perfectly. It just worked out that way. What he wants just so happens to be what billions of people want. And he also knows how to make real the things he wants.

This inspires people not only to follow him, but to want to solicit his opinion. The best thing that can happen to an engineer at Apple is to show Jobs something, have him trash it and tell them why. He forces everyone to raise their game. To try harder. He is the stern father to a generation born of weak or passive fathers. And he does this to companies too, not just individuals. He demands perfection and excellence and is perfectly happy to let you know in the most brutal fashion possible precisely how you let him down.

It is a very asymmetric relationship, and I suspect this is why a lot of people don’t like him. Jobs would never work for someone who treated him the way he treats others. This strikes some people as unfair. But that is a reflection on the people who work for him, not a reflection on him.

Steve Jobs is one of those rare people who has a clear vision of what he wants, can get people to join with him to realize it, and whose vision happens to be what most of the public wants but never realized they wanted. That is the Apple trifecta, and that is what no one else can duplicate. Other people have great vision that doesn’t line up at all with the demands of the public (right or wrong). Other people only work as a means to achieve another end, like wealth, status or happiness. Other people are good at running things, but not so good at picking the direction to run in.

But is Steve Jobs a “good” man, in the moral and ethical sense of the word? From what I know of his life, and the treatment of his first daughter and her mother, probably not. I think Bill Gates is a better man, if you want to compare tech giants. But Gates is not an inspiring figure for consumers or technologists, as he is no longer in the business of either.

You, the reader, are probably a better person than Jobs. You, who go through life wanting to be supportive of others, and wanting them to feel happy about themselves. But maybe that’s what prevents you from being Jobs. Our society does not value goodness. It values excellence, determination, monomania. Could you surround yourself with people who respect you for your vision, and then humiliate and berate them when they let you down because it doesn’t conform to your vision? If not, you can never be Steve Jobs. You can never be insanely great.

I think that even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, you are nonetheless judged in the memories of those who survive you, who also happen to be the people closest to you. The accolades in the press, the public’s adoration, fickle as they are, ultimately mean nothing. What matters are the memories you create in the minds of those around you, because ultimately that is the truest record and most honest accounting of your life. It is in their minds that your existence will be replayed. I wonder how that record stands in the minds of those in Jobs’s life. I wonder about all those who’ve incurred his wrath, personally and professionally. What do they remember?

Be good. It’s more important than being great.

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20 Responses to Steve Jobs, and the Insanely Great

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    I wonder how that record stands in the minds of those in Jobs’s life.

    The ones who could hang will remember him as somebody who made them better. If they can perform on that level, they’re probably the kind of people who’ll think it was worth it. If not, so what? They’re grownups, they could’ve called a recruiter.

    These people are really great to have around, but not everybody can or should be doing that with his life. If everybody did, we’d starve.

    Our society does not value goodness. It values excellence, determination, monomania.

    Seems to me most people value goodness more in their friends and family, though they don’t mind a little excellence when something needs fixing around the house. Who’s “our society”, anyway? You don’t mean flyover country, right? Just the parts that matter. OK, fair enough.

    • CubaLibre says:

      Speaking of monomania…

      Anyway, the real problem with PB’s post is that it seems to presume that excellence and “goodness” are mutually exclusive.

  2. xiphoidmaneuver says:

    Jobs’ greatness has substance. Watch some video of him and it’ll be clear that he is charismatic and a great salesman. His sales pitch has high quality independent of the quality of the products he sells. I infer he has managerial skill because he didn’t ruin Apple (far from it) as CEO.

    As for his vision catching a consumer zeitgeist, it couldn’t just work out that way. He studied aesthetics and worked hard to design/steal things people would like. I don’t think that element of the trifecta falls into anyone’s lap.

    For his goodness – I don’t think we’re in a position to judge. I certainly haven’t met the guy. Pastabagel, when you wrote about Jobs’ goodness what did you _want_ to be true? Why?

    I think most people do value goodness. I’m guessing PB means people don’t make money or publicity for goodness when PB says “Our society does not value goodness.” I don’t know how society can improve on this. If large numbers of people paid money to express moral approval instead of or in addition to buying goods and services (which are produced by excellence & determination) I don’t think the results would be pretty.

  3. Fifi says:

    On the “decent human being” scale he’s kind of a douche (and one has to wonder whether Apple’s culture of narcissism is mainly his doing, the Woz actually came up with the idea of selling a pre-assembled PC and seems to be the humble yang to Jobs’ narcissistic ying). The kind of pancreatic cancer Jobs has was one of the rare treatable kinds – however, instead of getting medical treatment at the time Jobs engaged in new age pseudomedical “treatments” until his cancer worsened and he needed a liver transplant. He then basically gamed the transplant system (something only those who are rich like him can do) to get a liver transplant – meaning someone else who’d been on that list DIDN’T get a liver transplant. The douchiest part of it is that if Jobs most likely could have avoided needing that liver if he wasn’t being self indulgent and didn’t buy into medical/religious quackery.

  4. ThomasR says:

    “What matters are the memories you create in the minds of those around you, because ultimately that is the truest record and most honest accounting of your life. It is in their minds that your existence will be replayed”

    This is just not true. Or, I am completely unconvinced that this is true. Yes, memories in the minds of those who know you best may be the truest and most honest accounting of your life, BUT, that is not at all what matters to millions and billions of people. 99% of everyone who exists and will exist in the future have and will have zero personal memories of Jobs. What will matter to them, all of them, is how the media and academia spin his life and describe him in news articles and biographies.

    • Ron says:

      PB has hit the nail on the head with his description of Jobs. As for the future “spin”, after the hagiography ends and more forthright evaluations of his achievements and what it took to get there surface, this piece will seem prescient.

  5. HP says:

    How many “good” guys die every day having done nothing whatsoever to oppose evil, abate hunger, or in any way make the world at large a better place, other than to be fondly remembered by the handful of people who knew them?

    How many abrasive, demeaning, unpleasant people die every day with poorly attended funerals, having improved the world in a meaningful way?

    Sure, be a good person. Can’t argue that. But I’d rather somebody worry about actually improving the world than being remembered fondly by those around them.

  6. geerussell says:

    I don’t disagree with most of the praise being heaped upon Jobs. He’s every bit as charismatic, inspirational, visionary and moneymaking as everyone says. Certainly at or near the top of the list among his contemporaries.

    Greatest in american business history though… that’s tough for me to swallow. Henry Ford gave us the assembly line and the wild radical notion of paying workers enough to afford what they were making. Steve Jobs brings us iphones and ipads by way of Foxconn and suicide nets. I don’t know if it’s all that great as an historical contribution.

  7. antoinebugleboy says:

    @geerussell You’re just baiting a Godwin on this one, aren’t you?

  8. geerussell says:

    Wasn’t going there, not gonna touch it.

  9. iamagelightbulb says:

    Jeff Bezos merits your definition of ‘insane greatness’ while also lacking Jobs’ negative attributes.

    Bill Gates is projected to be a latter day philanthropist but appears to be an erstwhile unconvicted felon (qua predatory capitalist) according to “Caldera Inc.’s Consolidated Statement of Facts In Support of Its Responses To Motions For Summary Judgment by Microsoft Corporation” ( (which is a well-crafted and entertaining read).

  10. claudius says:

    So the inability to specify the nature of Jobs’ contribution has left a lot of people, especially those who were never enamored of Apple’s products, wondering what the big deal is.

    Wikipedia is in disagreement:

    Jobs is listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in over 230 awarded patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies from actual computer and portable devices to user interfaces (including touch-based), speakers, keyboards, power adapters, staircases, clasps, sleeves, lanyards and packages.

    You would think from the Wikipedia article that he is an extremely talented inventor. However, when clicking on the primary sources reveals:

    ZERO. ZIPPO. NIL. Too funny. However, it would surprise me if he had contributed nothing. Perhaps it’s just a citing error. Hence (emphasis mine):

    Most of the many Apple patents that the blogosphere discovers and takes as evidence of amazing gadgets to come have one thing in common: Steve Jobs’ name isn’t on them. He tends to show up on patents that show real Apple products in more-or-less final form. This one is an exception: It’s a 2004 filing for a touch tablet computer of some sort, credited to Jobs and fourteen others. Apple has released no such product to date, and the drawing at right is about as close as the filing gets to explaining how one might work.

    • claudius says:

      Pastabagel, you’ve said this without saying it: Jobs is (arguably) the greatest marketer who ever lived. As some have pointed out, he is an excellent salesman as well, but his contributions to brand identity and development have made Apple incredibly profitable, even when the rest of the market was beaten. Some excellent marketing strategies are targeting 50,000 sneezers* and unleashing products that have a built in Ideavirus*.
      See 11:54

      *Though he doesn’t mention this language in his presentation, Seth Godin provides definitions of “sneezers” and “ideavirus” in his online book “Ideavirus”

    • mattwan says:

      The USPTO search can be pretty funky. Try this search to get the patents listing Jobs as an inventor. Turns out it chokes without the semicolon in this case, although it works fine in other cases with a comma.

      I take no stance on how significantly Jobs contributed to those patents, or his goodness as a person.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      What Jobs is good at is not inventing excellent things himself (that’s what Jonathan Ive does), but creating and running an organization which invents excellent things. He’s sort of the Harold Ross of consumer electronics. That involves being a prick in a lot of ways. Ross drove his creative people nuts, too. But just being a prick is not enough; the world is full of pricks. Most pricks are just pricks; they annoy people and get in the way. The kind of prick who adds value is very rare, and Jobs seems to be one.

      Also Jobs is good at marketing, sales, feeding people Kool-Aid, etc. But lots of people can sell stuff.

      If Jobs’ fanboys like to think he invents everything himself like Stalin cooking up helicopters and baseball in downtime between purges, well, that’s why people make fun of fanboys.

  11. Zo says:

    Hello? Have you read nothing of the early exploits of Gates and Ballmer, shabby little thieves that they were?

  12. W.Kasper says:

    “Partial Objects is a user-driven community blog that articulates the underlying biases, assumptions, and frames of mainstream politics, culture and media.”


    “Steve Jobs is such a kewl visionary striving for excellence! He makes expensive visionary shit for kewl people inspired by his excellent visonary vision-ness! He demands nothing but excellence in realising the visonary kewlness of his vision! He’s the most excellent Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and Buddha of kewl visonariness!”

    (repeat cheesy 90s advertorial marketing cliches for several more paragraphs…)

  13. W.Kasper says:


    Pastbagel should give inspirational talks at those Chinese Foxconn factories. I’m sure the applause would be deafening. Well apart the four or five workers that haven’t killed themselves that day anyway (maybe more than usual after he’s finished his speech…)

  14. sunshinefiasco says:

    There are some people who seem confused:

    Being good to people on an inter-personal, relationship-based, everyday level, being good for the world (i.e. Jonas Salk, or someone who is responsible for a large-scale plus), and being good at something are three things that are different. You can be good at more than one, but you don’t have to be.

    Example: Steve Jobs: apparently not so awesome personally, pretty sure he hasn’t done anything massively good for “people”/the world, but has definitely been the best example of the marketing that’s currently running our world (end-user focused in an entirely new way, disposable product, exclusive and omnipresent all at once)