This week something unusual happened. At the very same time that tens of thousands of ordinary citizens were camping out in New York, Washington, and Seattle to protest corporate greed, and the capitalistic wealth of the very rich, a similar number of ordinary citizens were depositing flowers and spiritual offerings at the corporate stores of the wealthiest company in the world (with earnings larger than most countries), in memory of one of the richest people in the world, the late Steve Jobs. Why would a billionaire elicit such affection and love during this moment of fierce dissatisfaction with global capitalism?
Because Steve Jobs was a CEO of beauty. In his interviews and especially in private, Jobs often spoke about Art. Taste. Soul. Life. And he sincerely meant it, as evidenced by the tasteful, soulful products he created over 30 years. The collective mass mourning and commiseration that erupted on news of his death is due to the fact that his art touched billions of people. Most of the technological gadgets that we experience in life are not ruled by beauty; they are not art; they do not reflect a soul. In fact they seem brutally crass, ugly, and lifeless. But over time, Apple products came to explicitly reflect the soul of one person: Steve Jobs. People cried when Jobs died because they genuinely felt they “knew” him in some fashion when they swiped their iPad, or shuffled their iPod. And they did. Even though some 46,000 other Apple employees did most of the hard work, those lovely designs and intense smartness of the Apple gadgets were extensions of Steve Jobs himself.
Jobs clearly put design and art before money—and that made his work thrilling. It was not just a gimmick. Jobs was a college dropout, a hippy who drifted in India, a technologist with no training in engineering or software, a renegade who admitted to being transformed by the psychedelic drug LSD, a lousy manager who was fired by the very company he started. In his heart of heart, Jobs was an artist, a misfit, maybe a mystic, a square peg in a round hole. It may only be an accident of fate that the greatest invention of all time, the personal computer, was born in his backyard of Silicon Valley just when he was coming of age, and that this invention’s particular needs fit Jobs’ odd combination of talents perfectly.
His talents were that he had a designer’s eye and the unwavering self-confidence of a genius. Other genius creators such as Picasso, or Mozart, or Dickens never asked their audience what they should do next; they just made their art as true to themselves as they could, and then it would be loved. Likewise, Jobs famously said, “It is not the customer’s problem to know what they want.” This was Job’s problem: to find out what was beautiful, and which beauty others desired. When that worked, the love (and money) flowed towards it.
If a person can do that once, they are hailed as brilliant. Yet Jobs had an uncanny knack for finding an unexpected beauty again and again. Often his designs were so unexpected that they became entirely new industries. The list is long and familiar by now. He helped realize the now universal drag-and drop interface of the personal computer, the musical iPod and its iTunes store, the iPad tablet, the iPhone world, Pixar computer animations, and along the way two remarkably innovative and beautiful advertising campaigns, including what many agree is the best commercial ever produced: the 1984 Mac Superbowl ad, and the campaign that is 100% Steve Jobs: Think Different.
How is it possible one person could do all this? Jobs gave hints of his secrets along the way, but never more clearly than in his commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He claimed his success had nothing to do with technology, or working hard, or being the smartest. Instead he gave credit to failure and death. His failure in dropping out of college allowed him to audit classes in subjects he found fun—like calligraphy—useless knowledge which only later turned out to be essential for making the first beautiful fonts for computers. His failure in being fired by his own company allowed him to jump out of computers and begin to build digital lifestyle devices, which would never have happened if he had stayed. As a aging hippy who always wore blue jeans he said he “wore the wrong kind of pants” to be a CEO, but being a failed CEO later made him an even more successful one. As for death, Jobs said, “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
Jobs was living his own life and that gave him genius. In my experience, greatness is overrated. Greatness always appears in a person alongside great weaknesses. Job’s great genius came with the price of being a great jerk at the same time. He was often arrogant, harsh, duplicit, ego-centric, and just plain mean. He was no saint. He publicly berated hard working employees, and it took him years to acknowledge he was the father of his first daughter. But he could be extremely charming the next minute. In other words he was deeply human, but he was just more obvious about his humanity. I believe Job’s genius lay in his ability to channel his humanity into very technological products.
He rejected the idea that technology had to look like… well, technology. Technology bored him. In 1996 I had an opportunity to jointly interview Jobs for Wired magazine. This was at a low point in his career. He had been dismissed from Apple, and was re-inventing himself at his new company NeXT. The NeXT computer was utterly beautiful—a perfect black cube—but almost no one wanted to buy one. His company headquarters were equally elegant with a bold staircase design he would later recycle in his Apple stores. However this beautiful computational object was a commercial failure. But Jobs thrives on attention, so he was in a rare mood to invite some journalists in to chat. In that wide-ranging conversation I asked Jobs: “What’s the biggest surprise about technology?” And his answer surprised me. “We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much - if at all.”
I saw then that to Jobs computers were not about technology and not about computing. They were not even about communicating. The new things that we make, the ones that have computer chips inside, are about expressing our humanity. Earlier inventions like the microphone and telephone and television extended our senses; these ones like the iPad and iPhone were about extending our imaginations, our minds, and our values. They wanted to harness our full bodies, all our senses including speech, at thinking speeds, with intuition and grace. We should dance with our technology.
But that is now. Back then when I left the NeXT offices, I felt that we would probably never hear from Jobs again. He seemed utopian, quixotic, a total dreamer. I was so wrong. A failure for Jobs was the ideal learning platform it should be for all of us. He had his eye on a much larger vision, one that he felt was an inevitable human destination that could not be derailed by a mere failure. In is eyes, technology made us more human, rather than less. When technology was beautiful, we were beautiful. There was to be more of it so why not make it as beautiful as possible?
It’s hard to tell how long Apple will continue without Jobs to create beautiful inventions that make us better people. But I don’t think more iPods and iPhones is the long-term legacy of Steve Jobs. It’s much bigger. The greatest legacy of Steve Jobs is that he gave permission to everyone else to be a poet of computers, to be a businessman in blue jeans, to be a constructive misfit, a technological artist, a corporate renegade, to think different, and to remember the soul of the machine. Because of him we all have now learned to demand that technology reveal its beauty.