Steve Jobs was a man easy to admire, or be jealous of, but not necessarily to love.
He was arrogant, pushy, confident, courageous and annoying. He created or revolutionized the personal computer, animation, the recorded music industry, telephones and the tablet.
Folks are comparing him to Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, which is apt because in addition to being great innovators, they were also remarkably prickly and non-cuddly. So it leads to this question: do you have to be a jerk to make a big impact in this world?
It’s not an idle thought: let’s face it, earthlings as a group do not welcome innovators and people who challenge the status quo, no matter how distasteful their present situation. It’s the old “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know” school of thought.
History is full of example of virtuous pioneers who got slapped down or worse. Jesus was crucified, Gandhi, King and Lincoln were assassinated. Galileo was arrested and threatened with death. As Lucy Maud Montgomery once wrote, “People don’t want be improved.”
Sometimes, it seems, that you have to be a slug-in-a-ditch (if you follow my subtle metaphor) in order to get ahead in this world, and an even bigger one to change it. At his death, Jobs had not only changed the world, but had a good bit of its wealth. A guy who never finished college ended up being one of the richest, most influential men on the planet.
As an Apple partisan since the early 1980s, I have always regarded Jobs as a kind of the champion of our virtuous side, battling at Armageddon against The Dark Side, as represented by Bill Gates and Microsoft. Steve may have been a bit of a jerk, but he was “our jerk,” fighting the battle for individuality and innovation against the conformist forces of IBM and Windows.
As things turned out in that David and Goliath story, David (Apple) has grown bigger than Goliath (Microsoft), whose leader – Gates – has turned out to be kind of a nice guy. With his wife, he’s established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated millions to the assistance of the needy and underprivileged. He’s also been a voice in favor of the wealthy not turning their backs on the poor.
Steve a humanitarian? Not so much. His idea of public service seemed to revolve around selling the public his really cool products at a premium price.
You might try to draw some sort of moral lesson by noting that the driven Jobs died prematurely at 56 years old, while the retired Gates is still rolling along healthily at the same age, but I don’t buy that. While I think that being a jerk can impair your health, I doubt that it causes pancreatic cancer.
Steve seemed to revel in his success, especially in the later years, but he also never appeared to be particularly satisfied. I suppose that goes hand-in-hand with being an innovator; you always feel the need to keep pushing the envelope and getting more and more ahead of the pack. You look in the mirror and ask: “What have you done for me lately?”
Perhaps this comes from an inner sense of inadequacy or loss. You create stuff or aggregate wealth as a way of making up for the love he lost. Freud once said that the two essentials for happiness and mental health were work and love. Not having one makes you crave the other.
So I guess we owe a certain debt of gratitude to the parents who put him up for adoption, the girls who wouldn’t date him in high school, the Apple board of directors who fired him, and the folks at Microsoft who gave him a convenient enemy to sharpen his sword on.
Steve measured himself against these challenges and resolved to prove them all wrong. Mostly he won, even at the cost of being a bit of a tyrant while doing it. To the extent that he created (or inspired the creation of) an array of products that can make our lives easier and more productive, we have to be glad for the trials that made him the driven man he was.
Glad for what he did, and doubly glad we don’t have to be like Steve to like what he did.