Steve Jobs

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve Jobs the last few days — thinking about the man and his legacy. I’ve been having some trouble even understanding the way I feel, let alone being able to put it into words. Lots of folks have asked me what I think, and have been surprised that I haven’t tweeted or blogged about it yet. So here’s a first shot.

I’m finding my feelings to be pretty complex, which I guess isn’t too surprising given who he was. But for a man I’ve never met, I’m a little surprised about how much of my thinking he’s affected, and how many competing feelings I’ve got.

But some of them are pretty simple.

As a designer, I think it’s impossible to feel anything but pure, unadulterated joy that Steve existed at all. And I really mean that: thank god for him, he changed so much. He wasn’t the first to care about design in technology, and he won’t be the last, but he moved things so much.

He made beautiful software and hardware like nobody had ever seen before. Crucially, he built tools that helped — or completely enabled, really — creatives make their own beautiful work that enriched the world. He completely and utterly validated the view that design could be immensely valuable economically, not just culturally.

Mostly he made it acceptable — desirable! — to believe in and practice great, human-centered design in our work and lives. What a gift.

As a people manager and leader, I really struggled with how to think about him. The stories of how brutal he could be on the people around him — employees, competitors, and everyone else — are legion, and they’re not apocryphal. He could be deeply dehumanizing and belittling to the people around him. Like a lot of people of great vision, which he surely was, he did it all in the name of greatness, of perfection — but I have enough close friends who have been in the line of Jobs’ fire to know how personally destructive it could be, and as a manager I have a hard time with it.

On the other hand, he was an unbelievable leader and motivator.

It turns out that I worked at Apple ATG (Advanced Technology Group) in 1994/5 when I was a grad student at Stanford, and then again for all of 1997, when I moved back here from Trilogy.

I remember being at a talk he gave shortly after returning in 1997 as Interim CEO. A bunch of us employees (I was at ATG at the time) were in Town Hall in Building 4 at Infinite Loop to hear him, and he was fired up. Talked a lot about how Apple was going to completely turn things around and become great.

It was a tough time at Apple — we were trading below book value on the market — our enterprise value was actually less than our cash on hand. And the rumors were everywhere that we were going to be acquired by Sun. Someone in the audience asked him about Michael Dell’s suggestion in the press a few days previous that Apple should just shut down and return the cash to shareholders, and as I recall, Steve’s response was: “Fuck Michael Dell.” Good god, what a message from a CEO! He followed it up by admitting that the stock price was terrible (it was under $10, I think — pretty sure it was under $2 split-adjusted), and that what they were going to do was reissue everyone’s options on the low price, but with a new 3 year vest. He said, explicitly: “If you want to make Apple great again, let’s get going. If not, get the hell out.” I think it’s not an overstatement to say that just about everyone in the room loved him at that point, would have followed him off a cliff if that’s where he led.

He was also a gifted, gifted operator. One of the struggles we were going through when he came back was that Apple was about the leakiest organization in history — it had gotten so bad that people were cavalier about it. In the face of all those leaks, I remember the first all company e-mail that Steve sent around after becoming Interim CEO again — he talked in it about how Apple would release a few things in the coming week, and a desire to tighten up communications so that employees would know more about what was going on — and how that required more respect for confidentiality. That mail was sent on a Thursday; I remember all of us getting to work on Monday morning and reading mail from Fred Anderson, our then-CFO, who said basically: “Steve sent mail last week, he told you not to leak, we were tracking everyone’s mail, and 4 people sent the details to outsiders. They’ve all been terminated and are no longer with the company.”

Well. If it wasn’t clear before that the Amelio/Spindler/Sculley days of Apple were over, it was crystal clear then, and good riddance.

As a leader of people, you have to respect how much he (and more importantly, his teams) accomplished. But I struggle with some of the ways that he led, and how they affected good people.


I’m a little uncomfortable with the outpouring of sentiment about people who want to be like Steve. There’s a sort of beatification going on that I think misses the point. He was never a nostalgic man at all, and I can’t help but feel like he would think this posthumous attention was, in a lot of ways, a waste — seems like he’d have wanted people to get back to inventing.

On Twitter yesterday Naval nailed it, as he often does: “I never met my greatest mentor. I wanted so much to be like him. But, his message was the opposite. Be yourself, with passionate intensity.”

That’s it, I think — that’s the biggest message from Jobs’ life. Don’t try to be like Steve. Don’t try to be like anyone.

Be yourself and work as hard as you can to bring wonderful things into the world. Figure out how you want to contribute and do that, in your own way, on your own terms, as hard as you can, as much as you can, as long as you can.

His most lasting message, I hope, won’t be about technology or management or media or communications or even design. The work he did in those areas certainly matters and will continue to — impossible to ignore it.

Still, I think it’s not the main thing, the essential thing.

I hope the message that people really take, really internalize is that being yourself, as hard as you can, is the way to have important and lasting impact on our world. That might be in the context of technology. It might be in the context of technology, or the arts, or sports, or government, or social justice — or even in the context of your family and close friends.

It almost doesn’t matter. The thing that matters most is to figure out what’s important to you, what’s core to you, and do that. Be that. And do it as well as you possibly can, every single day.


  1. Personally I tend not to admire people, but their strategies and achievements. Steve Jobs has many of them, including pushing projects for decades until they can have their own space in the World. The problem with Apple’s secrecy is that it spread to Jobs himself so that made it really hard to relate from someone with only a perfectly managed public persona. As you say, we are lucky to live in a world where he existed, but we are also lucky for the stories behind the Mac development team.

  2. Be yourself. Work your hardest. All of the time.

    I’ve always wondered at the reaction of the world to the notorious Steve Jobs in the work place stories.

    No one had to pull monolithic stones over miles of terrain while an individual whipped them repeatedly.

    No one got Black Lung or risked dying in a horrendous accident every time they went to work.

    All that happened was that some people who claimed that they were the brightest and hardest working got yelled at when they weren’t and were continually yelled at until they actually were.

    • I guess I’ve come in late on Apple products. To me they’re just another way to do the same thing Windows & Linux do them. I see Apple’s move to Intel cpu’s as throwing in the towel. Jobs told whoppers and ripped off consumers. How else would one perceive the fact that Intel cpu’s run in Apple computers today. And to be faster than the PC offerings, Intel had to give Apple cpu’s a faster fsb or tweak the clock multiplier. Many enthusiasts can build a PC that’s even faster than an Apple by doing that same tweak in a couple of bios settings. Even play with memory timings. Another example iPhone4, anyone else recall the day he couldn’t connect in a keynote from technical difficulties. His product needed a rubber bumper, it was defective, not AT&T’s network. Having worked in IT for some time, it makes me ill others careers were sacrificed to save a CEO’s image, not the company/organization, but an ego of a man that dresses the same as any of us. That’s the legacy I have for Jobs.

      My first Apple was a 2003 12″ 867 Powerbook, What a disappointing and overpriced product. And so it goes to this day. Using ipads to display info on ipads at Apple stores. iCloud, coming soon, meanwhile UbuntuOne has been operational for 2 1/2 years. Innovation some say ? Perhaps it’s time to put the urban myth/legend of Steve Jobs away ? I’ll debate anyone head to head on Linux vs OS X feature for feature. Start with work spaces, how long did Apple’s OS lack this feature ? Standard in every Linux distro for how long now ? Let’s move to iWorks Office Suite. Tell/Show me Open Office isn’t better ? Safari web browser, Mozilla’s software (Firefox, Sea Monkey, Camino) & Opera are equally as good (actually better). No thanks, I tried Apple and getting taken advantage of as a consumer is something that turns me on to feed the ego of another human being. Honesty & integrity go further with me in my business dealings.

      • ” I’ll debate anyone head to head on Linux vs OS X feature for feature. Start with work spaces, how long did Apple’s OS lack this feature ? Standard in every Linux distro for how long now ? Let’s move to iWorks Office Suite. Tell/Show me Open Office isn’t better ? Safari web browser, Mozilla’s software (Firefox, Sea Monkey, Camino) & Opera are equally as good (actually better).”

        Rob the bartender and Joe the artist doesn’t really care what you said above. They are going for the experience, and ease of use, not to tinker around. 5 billion people are just like Rob and Joe. So, Jimbo – now tell me – would you like to make 5 billion happy? or just 1.5 billion happy?

  3. Steve Jobs was a person. He had flaws like everyone else.

    He did many, many things that were spectacular. He will be remembered fondly.

  4. Very well written post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Great article..I am among the many who feel a sense of loss without having met him..I know the void he left could never be fulfilled..I was sad last week but now I wanna celebrate him and what he accomplished in this life.. No more tears..and Thank you Steve.

  6. Remember who you are and be yourself – just with more cowbell!

  7. I think all the worry about not knowing the man we all admire will fade out (mostly) once the authorised biography will come out on Nov2011 by Walter Isaacson.

  8. Indeed. I have been troubled by the notion that the man who claimed to wish us to live our own lives has created so many who wish to live his. In some sense, we’ve all been privileged to witness his dreams given form, but I would think the best way to remember him is to fight for our own.

  9. I would not have wanted to work for Steve Jobs. I had a manager like that once and it made work a stressful ordeal. On the other hand, a manager like that might prompt you to get out and do something great on your own!

    Ultimately, Steve’s legacy is that he fostered and sold good products. There are many good products in the world. But he — and the folks at Apple — managed simultaneously to make them cool. Few products are cool. Apple is the only company that managed to codify and implement the perspective of the hippie movement into expansive tools that affect work, play, and attitude to this day.

  10. Many thanks for writing this. Very well-written!

    I was thinking a lot about this, and you basically told everything I had in my mind.

    His life was more than just building good product. The way that he lived his life, is what that make him so special.

    I am happy that existed.

  11. Very well written. That is the Steve Jobs message. I saw some artwork over the weekend where an artsist painted a picture of Steve Jobs as a beatified saint. While the artwork was nicely done, the message is wrong.

    I am forever grateful for the tech designs and software advances made by Steve Jobs, I enjoy them daily. His real message is about how to live life!

  12. Jobs was man… not a coward who fear users… who always tried to give best to the user without asking them… and got succeeded… I am still seeing Microsoft releasing product at least one year ahead of their release and polish with the help of user? how lame!

    • Ever heard of closed beta testing that apple does? Its not about being a coward… its about making the product better… who better to find bugs than user who is going to be the one who will suffer from them….

  13. Fantastic article. The last part of your article, the one about how you should be yourself and not try to imitate Steve Jobs, is spot on. Thanks for the nice anecdotes.

  14. Only great people are allowed to be taken from this world for a greater purpose through pancreatic cancer. It is a disease, that has no survivors and there are no immortals . My father left the world through this illness . Arethra Franklin is on the waiting list. We are blessed to have lived during a time when steve jobs was alive. Thanks for your good article.

  15. Great post John, gives us a candid view of Steve Jobs and his life’s message.

    As Shakespeare said many years ago:

    “This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

  16. Good post — thanks for writing it.

  17. Steve was a human being. He wasn’t perfect. It doesn’t diminish what he accomplished.

    Yes, he could be difficult. Yes, he could humiliate people. But the truth is that nine times out of ten what he was saying was absolutely right.

    The example of confidentiality that you site is really the sign of an excellent manager. He made it abundantly clear immediately that breaching confidentiality was not acceptable. He made the rules and terms clear. There were consequences.

    I worked for Steve in his first stint at Apple. He was the most inspiring leader I have ever worked for because he cared first and foremost for creating great products and having an impact. Yes, he could have handled some situations more gracefully but his inspired leadership more than made up for it.

  18. Walter Isaacson wrote an awesome biography of Einstein, now he has written one on Jobs. The audiobook version, of Steve Job’s biography will be released October 24th through iTunes and I love the notion of listening to Job’s biography on a iPhone.
    We are going to miss Steve Jobs so much. He was such a great genius. I always felt that he was some how a friend creating all these awesome products. But, he was so private, I really know very little about him. I hope the Isaacson book will be a celebration of all that was good about him, and solve the mystery of what him such an extraordinary man of vision and innovation.

  19. Jobs was a wonderful, mysterious, amazing GENIUS. I always waited for his next product, as they felt like gifts. He will be so missed. But, he was kind of like Garbo, so mysterious and private. I am waiting to listen to the new bio by Isaacson, to learn about the man we adored, but only really knew through his creations. Isaacson did a great book on Einstein, so I have high hopes for this book. It is coming out October 24 on Amazon, iTunes and PremierAudiobooks.I want the audio version, so I can listen to it on my iPhpne. I hope that some how Apple has more creative, wonderful, insanely excellent people, that will continue Job’s creative legacy.

  20. Hey John,

    This was a really great post. “being yourself, as hard as you can, is the way to have important and lasting impact on our world.”

    I agree.

    Looking forward to catching up.