Faithful Departed: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was never a corporate man. The early personal computer industry was an outgrowth of the radical back-to-the-land ethos and even the name “Apple” was intentionally folksy and home-brewed. For Jobs, the personal computer wasn’t a way to bring work home or improve the productivity and accountability of employees. His goal was always computer as appliance, computer as an empowering tool for regular people. He pointed to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which I grew up poring through, as a key inspiration. The story of Apple’s products is a story of getting closer and closer to that vision. The infamous 1984 Superbowl ad set up Apple as the opposite of IBM’s (Microsoft’s) corporate mindset. The only thing that’s changed is that Jobs’ vision has won.

The day after Steve Jobs passed away in October, besides my column on him, Busted Halo bloggers Tom, Annie and Vanessa — a seminarian, a music journalist and a young mother — all posted about the influence he’d had on them. This is one of many testaments to the far-reaching influence Jobs’ empowering technologies have had. As I said then, I crossed paths with Steve Jobs’ companies and creations many times. The first personal computer I ever bought was a hard drive-less Mac 512. A few years later, I wrote a landmark PC Magazine cover article about the Mac’s operating system, and had a column about the Mac for several years after that. In the early 2000s, my burgeoning videography career was made possible largely by Final Cut, Apple’s groundbreakingly easy to use video editing software.

Jobs won

My benchmark of business success has always been Steve Jobs — as anti-corporate bad boy, as gadget guru, and especially as visionary of empowering technology. In his death, and reminded of his Stanford address, I am challenged by his example again. Are there things I want to be doing, ways I want to be living my life, that I’m not taking actions every day to make real? Well, yes. How about you?

I still find it hard to believe Jobs won. In the early 90s, when I was pursuing a semi-back-to-the-land lifestyle myself in rural Maine, raising sheep (and writing about technology), it looked like Jobs and Apple both had had their day. Apple had fired its founder and turned its attention towards the business market, but failed to make any headway. People, including Jobs, were saying, simply, “Microsoft won.” But when Apple hired Jobs back in the mid-90s, two things happened. First of all, he restored Apple’s foundational principles and empowering mindset, which along with his brilliant visionary mind gave us in quick succession, the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad. (There’s more about Apple’s technology in my earlier article.) Secondly, the internet changed the whole game. The internet is all about openness and interconnectedness, matching Apple’s strengths and undermining Microsoft’s weaknesses. Apple was briefly the largest company in the world just before Jobs died.

Some pooh-pooh Steve Jobs’ role because many of his ideas are borrowed. He didn’t invent the idea of the graphical user interface, where electronically stored data is turned into a visual desktop with file folders and windows, but when he saw it in Xerox’s labs, he knew how important it was. Same with the mouse; same with desktop publishing; same with simple cabling and networks and wifi; same with music players and smartphones; same with tablets. And same with what a little company called Pixar was doing with animation.

As Nino Amarena is quoted saying in Hedy’s Folly, the delightful new book about actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, “the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts interconnected from previous concepts that for the most part lie separate, unconnected and unrelated… to suddenly or serendipitously see the connection between the unrelated concepts and put it all together to create something new.” Jobs did not “invent” the mouse or the graphical interface or the folder and file metaphor, but he saw how they could all fit together into a broader goal.

Empowering technology

For Jobs, technology wasn’t the end; it was just a means. Jobs’ inventions aren’t lowest-common-denominator compromises designed by committee and driven by marketing research. Rather they are powerfully simple, fun designs, exciting because they are empowering — connecting people with their own dormant creativity, with other people, with music, images and video, in new and intimate ways.

For Jobs, technology wasn’t the end; it was just a means. Jobs’ inventions aren’t lowest-common-denominator compromises designed by committee and driven by marketing research. Rather they are powerfully simple, fun designs, exciting because they are empowering — connecting people with their own dormant creativity, with other people, with music, images and video, in new and intimate ways. An early slogan among Apple Mac developers was “easy is hard,” meaning that to make something easy to use requires a lot of work and thought. Most companies, whether for cost savings or marketing advantages, try to cheat this truth. Jobs had the vision, and the drive, to stick to his guns. The fuel for that drive can be found in his Stanford commencement speech (linked in that earlier article), given soon after he almost died from the cancer that would eventually take his life: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

While many people have looked to Bill Gates for his business brilliance, or Warren Buffet for his investing shrewdness, my benchmark of business success has always been Steve Jobs — as anti-corporate bad boy, as gadget guru, and especially as visionary of empowering technology. In his death, and reminded of his Stanford address, I am challenged by his example again. Are there things I want to be doing, ways I want to be living my life, that I’m not taking actions every day to make real? Well, yes. How about you? Steve Jobs said, essentially, that he tried to live every day as if it might be his last. Hate and fear and sloth have no place in that context. This is also the Christian message. It is impossible to live out perfectly, but it is worth trying.

What Works: Lessons from Steve Jobs

I probably should have had an obit for Steve Jobs ready to run. We had a dry run when he resigned as head of Apple a few months ago. But I didn’t, and many others have accurately chronicled the facts, so instead, for my regular personal spirituality column, I’m going to look at a few things we can learn from him.

Though I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, Steve Jobs’ work and influence affected my life often. At different times, I came close to working for both Apple and Pixar, the latter before he took it over. The first personal computer I ever bought was a Mac 512, no hard drive, for $2,600 (in 1984 money; that’s the equivalent of $5,400 today). Compared to my current MacBook, it had 1/800th the RAM, 1/600,000 the storage, and maybe 1/1000th the processing speed. The excitement as my wife and I brought home that machine and started exploring its revolutionary features was unlike anything I’ve experienced since with technology. Though iPods, iPhones and iPads are amazing, and the internet may be a more important shift, they are not as groundbreaking as was that moment. That was the arrival in my home of personal computing, of the home computer. All these later breakthroughs have built on that. Several years later, I was honored to write a landmark cover article for PC Magazine, at that time the nation’s tenth largest magazine, explaining the benefits of the Mac’s operating system to DOS and Windows users, and I wrote a column about the Mac for several years after that.

Follow your heart

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. — Steve Jobs

We don’t have to guess at how Steve Jobs set his priorities. He told us. When Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford a year after he had thought he was going to die of the cancer that eventually took his life six years later, he gave his own account. And there are few questions more challenging and more potentially upsetting than the one he posed that day. This Stanford speech has been quoted a lot in the last few days, but usually people point to the positive formulation of the challenge, something along the lines of, “Do what you love.” Far more powerful was his negative framing:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Note that though this question reflects a soul so aware of death, Jobs tells us it was his guiding principle throughout his career, long before his first close call. Steve Jobs lived his passion. He had cranky moments, sure. And that passion sometimes came out as passionate pig-headedness. The consensus from personal friends who worked with him is that the experience was sometimes exhilarating but often infuriating. But ask yourself, would you rather be a passionate person who sometimes gets carried away, or a passionless person who never ruffles feathers.

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell describes the sheer joy of playing on a trampoline — a moment in which he is entirely present and connected to the world around him through love, in which time stops and he feels the divine dimension of life. Jobs, in that commencement speech, observes, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” Great work also brings that timeless quality. Jobs is saying, why settle for devoting at least half your waking hours to something in which you don’t feel fully alive.

“There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Radical technology

I do want to say something about the fruits of Jobs’ work. Steve Jobs is certainly the most important inventor in our lifetime. But the defining quality in his inventions is that he saw technology as a tool for freedom, for empowerment, rather than for work productivity and increased profits. He often pointed to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog as the thing from the previous generation that inspired him most. Jobs took 60’s liberation-oriented thinking about technology serving personal empowerment to another level.

Steve Jobs was a radical. He had a subversive streak, and saw personal technology as something that could serve the subversive impulse rather than contain it. It’s important to understand that about him. And about Apple’s products. One of the reasons corporate IT departments refused to accept Macs into the fold until they we’re forced to by demanding users was that Jobs always prioritized freedom and collaboration above corporate control, so Apple products were more open and sometimes, honestly, less secure.

This is also why Jobs always put user experience at the top of the priority list. Technology should not get in the way of the human. As much as possible, the technology should adapt to the way people naturally interact. So: pointing and clicking, dragging and dropping, icons that relate to real-world objects like trash cans and file folders.

This also is at the root of Apple’s defining design characteristic: simplicity. In the design phase, Apple engineers, faced with decisions of whether to include a feature or controller, routinely choose to leave it out to avoid complicating the product and making it less easy and less fun to use. This contrasts sharply with most of the computer and consumer electronics world, where designs are jammed full of features and buttons that most users never understand and that create clumsy, ugly and less stable products. Apple products are elegant, and that elegance is thanks to Steve Jobs.

The time is now

Earlier in the day Jobs died, I was sitting with Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen discussing the fact that Sheen’s character in their new movie The Way takes actions to change his life at age 71 and that it’s never too late to commit to spiritual growth. Then later comes the news that Steve Jobs has lost his battle with cancer at age 56. It’s never too late, and it’s never too early. As Roisen Murphy, former singer of the band Moloko once said, “The time is now. It’s always now.”

There is no reason not to follow your heart.