What can we learn from the life and legacy of Steve Jobs, the cofounder, chief executive, and tutelary genius of Apple, who died in October?
More than anyone else, Jobs shaped the machines of the digital revolution and, with those machines, the texture of modernity. He was responsible for six creations of unrivaled influence—successively, the Apple II, the Macintosh, the movie studio Pixar, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad—and they all bear the stamp of his methods and values. The products he oversaw were simple, elegant, and genuinely novel.
How did he do it? In a paradox that has been endlessly worried over, Jobs’s preoccupation with delighting consumers was accompanied by confidence that there was no point in asking what they wanted. A 1989 interview in Inc. magazine contains the best account of his method. He hedged that his process was “hard to explain,” but he offered this: “Customers can’t anticipate what the technology can do. They won’t ask for things that they think are impossible.” But, he continued, “it takes a long time to pull out of customers what they really want, and it takes a long time to pull out of technology what it can really give.”
Jobs elaborated: “Sometimes the technology just doesn’t want to show you what it can do. You have to keep pushing on it and asking the engineers over and over again to explain why we can’t do this or that—until you truly understand it. A lot of times, something you ask for will add too much cost to the final product. Then an engineer might say casually, ‘Well, it’s too bad you want A, which costs $1,000, instead of B, which is kind of related to A. Because I can do B for just 50 cents.’ And B is just as good as A. It takes time to work through that process—to find breakthroughs but not wind up with a computer no one can afford.”
In his obituaries, Jobs was called a visionary. The word is justified: he had visions, and he persuaded cofounders, investors, employees, and, finally, customers to share them. Yet the word “visionary” implies mysterious powers, and as the Inc. interview suggests, Jobs’s method wasn’t magic. But the details were laborious. He was not an engineer. He combined and refined borrowed ideas (from Xerox PARC most famously, but also from typesetters, industrial designers, and the counterculture). He ignored vulgar consensus, took risks, and killed unsatisfactory projects. He demanded excellence; anything that was substandard, hurried, cluttered, or dumb pained him, and he rejected it. He concerned himself with the smallest details of products, insisting, for example, that his engineers redesign the motherboard of the Mac, which almost no one would ever see, because he found its initial layout aesthetically displeasing. He hired the best designers and engineers, and by persuasion and bullying, he inspired them to build his insanely great machines.
Apple (and by extension Jobs) existed, he always said, at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. He was an artist whose medium of expression was computing. He wanted to excite passionate fandom from his customers, because he was himself technology’s biggest fan. And like all real artists, he didn’t create his artifacts to get rich. He did it for the absorbing love of his craft.
In a justly famous speech at the 2005 Stanford University commencement, Jobs spoke about the patterns in life, about the clarifying power of knowing we will die, and about getting fired from Apple in 1985.
He said, “I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the Valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me—I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”
Jobs insisted that being fired was the best thing that could have happened to him: “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again … It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” During the next five years, he founded NeXT and Pixar and met his wife. NeXT led to his return to Apple, and he saw the technology he created at NeXT at the heart of the Macintosh operating system.
Jobs concluded: “I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple … I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love … Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Steve Jobs was an artist and perfectionist. Would that all of us followed his example.