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.