There was a certain poetic justice to my being informed through an iPhone of the passing of Steve Jobs on Wednesday, October 5, 2011, underscoring the words from his US President Barack Obama: “there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.” Despite that bright day being of an otherwise small personal celebration for myself in a long and dark year of degradation, I invited my friends—two of whom joined me in a toast to the life of this departed man on that bittersweet evening. The third raised her glass—with reluctance, and after much reservation. Surprising? Perhaps not. Jobs was many things, but he was certainly no poster-boy of amiability. As David Warren succinctly summarizes in The Ottawa Citizen, “[Steve Jobs] made it company policy to give not one penny to any philanthropic cause. Who pitched entirely to the mass market, with cleverly purposeful branding. Who imparted intangible fashion qualities to those products, through fanatic attention to industrial design. Who rode often brutally over opponents; who had anger management issues; and was the boss from hell to anyone who didn’t perform according to his exacting specifications.” I raise these issues at the outset to forestall any accusations of hagiographic disposition in this blogpost.
Yes, he was all these things. He was also all the things that the many have said in tribute, no better epitaph for him than in the script he wrote for the famous Apple “Think Different” commercial celebrating “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” I have watched and shared that commercial with friends and colleagues over the years, and, even in my possibly thousandth viewing of that commercial today, the tightness rose in my throat, and the tear of inspiration in my eye. Those carefully chosen words. And his Stanford Commencement Address, which in the intervening years—between when he delivered the address, and when he died—showed to all the world that he meant every word of what he said. As much is being said about him, I will restrict myself to a few unobtrusive observations.
Calligraphy Class: Having dropped out of his ‘registered’ courses at Reed College, Steve Jobs impulsively slipped into a course on calligraphy and studied the history, the art, and the science of the written word, for no particular reason than curiosity itself. He was not to know it then, but, as he points out in his Stanford Address, that learning about calligraphy was what inspired his design of the beautiful fonts so characteristic of Apple computers, and indeed of what millions today enjoy on all personal computers—it changed the face of typeface as we know it. One can only imagine academic counselors, parents and other well-meaning individuals scratching their heads in dismay at this dissolute and irresponsible Steve “wasting his time” on such calligra-rubbish instead of dutifully studying his requisite courses, getting his requisite grades, securing a requisite job, and living out the requisite middle-class college-educated California life.
Knick Knack: was a 3-minute short animated movie directed by John Lasseter, made at a then unknown computer graphics division which was purchased by Steve Jobs in 1986 after his infamous dismissal from Apple—and following the flagging fortunes of his NeXT Computers whose “hardware was gorgeous but far too expensive for the education market it was intended for.” Even at NeXT, Jobs was in quest of perfection, and nothing less would do. Anyway. The film Knick Knack follows the ill-fated attempts of a snowman to get from Alaska to sunny Miami—which must have touched Jobs’ heart in some way and to which he gave his enthusiastic support (see the handsome acknowledgement made to him in the closing credits of the film). I remember watching it for the first time as part of the movie previews to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), and being entranced by the exquisite shading, color, and sound effects, which made the main feature pale in animated comparison. This little animated short film was the precursor to Toy Story, and the award winning Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Up. The computer graphics company became Pixar. John Lasseter, who then went on to become the company’s Chief Creative Officer, eulogizes, “[Jobs] saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great’.” To date, the films made by Pixar all number themselves among the fifty highest-grossing animated films of all time. All this was after Jobs great—almost biblical—fall from Apple, when he rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of defeat to even greater heights. Apple became one of the greatest companies of the 20th century, and Pixar is poised to become the one of the 21st century.
Philanthropy: Jobs’ controversial position on philanthropy has not gone unremarked. In fact, he made it company policy not to contribute to philanthropic causes, which, as is often the case, has led to a questioning of his motives—that he was a selfish capitalist, only concerned with his personal successes and his personal gains, with no thought for the fate of his fellow men and women. But should the question of motives be applied to the benevolent actions of other famous philanthropists (John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Michael Jackson, and here in Canada, Peter Munk, Hugh Jackman and Michael Lee-Chin among numerous others), there is the rather awkward issue of self-propagation: their generosity is engraved with their names and their purchase of posterity. Then there is the issue of organizational ineffectiveness that has stigmatized so many Not-for-Profit organizations that are generally the beneficiaries of philanthropic generosity. Perhaps here the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (with generous support from Warren Buffet) has taken a significant step in their rigorous efficiency to ensure the maximum extraction of value for the maximum number of people in need. An excellent Canadian organization, Charity Intelligence, have set as their mission to inform potential donors of the actual translation of donor capital to worthy causes, where they set themselves “not intended to usurp or replace these [emotional] stories, but rather to complement them with the numbers and measured results.” But this blogpost is not a polemic against the fame-seeking donors, nor is it the castigation of organizational inefficiencies in Not-for-Profit organizations—they do indeed provide much needed support to the less fortunate people of our world, and indeed for which the dispossessed are grateful (I, myself, have been the beneficiary of charity at needful points in my life). Still, it is pertinent to note that the name of Steve Jobs graces no great Foundation, Museum, Library, University, Hospital or similar enterprise. As a matter of fact, when I mentioned the passing of Jobs to my mother (who is aware of such social initiatives), her response was: Who is that? Steve Jobs, perhaps danced to a different drummer. In an age of Corporate Social Responsibility, Jobs is off the radar. When Warren Buffet and Bill Gates launched the Giving Pledge initiative inviting to some of the richest people to donate half their fortune to philanthropic causes (or effectively be subjected to a ‘Wall of Shame,’ vigorously reported in print, internet and other twittering media), Jobs declined. Now, we may never know what his true motives were, but, if I may indulge in a controversial partisan view, Steve Jobs was not about to join the latest bandwagon of CSR self-promotion. Looking back at his many speeches, his actions, his designs and his products, we have to accede (even if grudgingly) to the common expression, that he didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. And his creations are a testament to the uncompromising excellence he demanded of everyone, most of all, himself.
So, how do we assess the man? I take inspiration from one of the memorable movies of my childhood, The Empire Strikes Back, in which Master Yoda castigates his young protégé, Luke Skywalker hesitantly about to “try” a challenging task. Yoda firmly says “Do. Or Do not. There is no Try.” For Steve Jobs there was no half-hearted Try; it was always an imperative Do! It was the same uncompromising stance he demanded of all who worked with, and for him. It was the signature of excellence on all his inventions, his innovations, and his life. In him, I recall the magnificent hero of John Milton’s great 17th century epic poem, Paradise Lost—Satan, who defiantly proclaimed upon his banishment from heaven that it was “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” His name was Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, the Prince of the Morning.