Steve Jobs Revisited

When Steve Jobs died, I posted an appreciation, saying I loved him.

I’ve now read Walter Isaacson’s authoritative biography, and I still love what Jobs did. But as a human being – not so much.

It can be hard for rich, powerful, and famous people to keep their bearings, especially when those things come early, before one can get a solid grounding in life. Steve started Apple at 21; and the syndrome was compounded by his having been adopted, a source of enduring psychological issues for him.

Yet it isn’t true that all rich and powerful people are bastards, or that you have to be a bastard to get rich and powerful. His status enabled Jobs to give vent to his uglier proclivities, but that didn’t help him accomplish what he accomplished. To the contrary, my reading of the book tells me he could have succeeded even better by treating people better.

In fact, he’d probably still be alive if he hadn’t been such a jerk. By incredible luck, his pancreatic cancer was found early enough to be cured surgically. But Jobs squandered that luck by rejecting medical advice and trying to treat it himself with diet and other quackery, allowing the cancer to spread. And facing death did nothing to modify his obnoxious personality. He was the Patient from Hell. At one point he refused an oxygen mask because he declared its design inelegant.

But if Steve Jobs was no paragon of virtue in the human department, of course that wasn’t his big story. It was his role as a maker of things; and in that he was very much a paragon of virtue.

In discussing capitalism and markets, I keep coming back to the key point that critics don’t get. It’s not mainly about making money. It’s about making products. And Steve Jobs really really got it. He was the greatest poster boy for it, ever.

Jobs liked making money; he wasn’t in business to lose money. But, in his mind, what he was really in business for was to make products. More – to make great products. That was the raison d’etre. Profits were necessary chiefly because without them, Jobs would have been unable to do what he wanted.

At every stage of his career – revolutionizing desktop computing; animated movies; the music business; the telephone; tablet computing – what motivated Steve Jobs was never money, nor even worldly success. It was to make things people would love, that would change their lives for the better. Do that, and profits will take care of themselves.

True, not every business can change the world with revolutionary products. Very few can. Yet the same basic ethos should infuse the production of even the most humdrum consumer goods. They should exist to make people’s lives better, even if only by the tiniest bit. Why else call them “goods”?! If you’re in the pencil business, make good pencils. If you’re Steve Jobs, make great ones.

Perhaps Steve Jobs is a conundrum – a man who often treated individual humans abominably, yet was driven by a passion to do good by millions of human beings he never met. In that, he succeeded beyond fantastically. And for that, I love him still.

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