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.