This week was again full of travel for me, including an interesting visit to London to make a speech at the remarkable Soho Hotel for the UK Direct Marketing Association. Again, the question of Steve Jobs still seemed to be on people’s minds, so I thought I would write a little more about him here.
In fact, with the continuing questions from my audiences, I began wondering why this man seemed to have such an impact on so many people who never knew him. Why did his story touch us so deeply? When I reflected on this question, I found three overriding reasons.
First, Steve Jobs was more than a business leader; he was something of a cultural phenomenon. He was a business person, of course, but at the same time someone who shaped the culture of his time, in deep and lasting ways. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of any other modern individual who influenced the culture and behavior of his contemporaries as much as Steve Jobs did.
History will remember Jobs not only as one of the most important figures in business and technology, but also as a countercultural hero. Apple was a new type of company. It changed not only the way we interact with digital devices, it provided an example of what a new company could be: a primary source of creativity, fulfillment and meaning in our lives. Steve Jobs and Apple led us to believe that a company can indeed foment cultural change, that engineers can think like artists, that intelligent design and esthetics can still prevail, even in one of the world’s most cutthroat technology industries.
Combining business and counterculture was no easy task, and succeeding in doing this made Apple a company with a fanatical following. Many customers enjoyed rooting for this special group that could promote revolutionary social change, an organization where high-tech workers could be artists expressing their creativity.
Steve Jobs’ company truly was different, and the world saw this difference clearly in the 1984 Big Brother ad that launched the Macintosh. Apple was not always successful through the years, but it always gave us a fresh and even liberating image of what a technology company could be. Its leader was perhaps the first example of entrepreneur as pop culture hero, a businessman as recognizable and charismatic as a film star.
Second, his story is a true Hero’s Journey, the kind we can all identify with. And, from the beginning, he was an unlikely hero, uniquely unqualified to do the things he ended up doing so well. He was neither an engineer, nor a computer programmer, nor an artist. In fact, former Apple CEO John Scully once said that he never saw Jobs draw anything pretty on a whiteboard. He succeeded mostly by dint of his remarkable vision and sheer will.
His quest was indeed a heroic journey, with a fall from grace and a return, with obstacles in his way, and with its trials and setbacks. But he stayed true to his values and beliefs. He preserved and conquered. At several point, the Hero was close to ruin. In the early 1990s, when he was pouring countless millions from his personal fortune into saving Pixar, his friends and most people in Silicon Valley thought that he had descended into madness.
His life and his fate in many ways mirrored that of Apple, with several comebacks from illness and near death. The ultimate triumph of Apple and its unlikely co-founder is a story that shows us that anything is possible. In the end, his astonishing comeback, a triumph over all odds and all adversaries, is as much part of the myth and the Jobs legacy as the products he and Apple created.
Third, whether you love him or hate him, his tale is a true saga of authenticity. At the now famous Stanford graduation speech of 2005, he told the students what he had understood from living with his illness and coming face-to-face with his own mortality: “Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life…Don’t let the noise of others drown out your own inner voice. It’s important to have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you really want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
To me, he is a shining example of someone who took his own advice. He lived no one else’s life but his own. He followed his heart and his intuition. Sometimes they brought him to the edge of ruin; sometimes they helped him to overturn and transform entire industries. Through it all, he was always authentic.