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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Steve Jobs, Storyteller

The beginning, the middle, and the end.

  • October 6, 2011

Among the many things that made Steve Jobs, who died yesterday, a genius was the fact that he was, at heart, a storyteller.

The word comes up again and again in his interviews and presentations. “Well, I’ll tell you a story,” he told Playboy, a multi-millionaire at 29. “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life,” he said in 2005 to a group of graduating Stanford students. The idea of a beginning, middle, and an end haunted Jobs, and motivated him. Especially the idea of an end: “almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important,” he told those students.

When Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985, he mulled what to do next. He might have become something like Bill Gates in retirement, devoting all his efforts to the philanthropic foundation he founded. Something tugged him in another direction. He bought a company called Pixar from George Lucas, and spent the next 10 years nurturing it and repeatedly bailing it out. And then, well, you know the rest of the story. Jobs was already a very wealthy man, but the IPO and acquisition of Pixar by Disney is what made Jobs a billionaire.

And it wasn’t just one corner of Hollywood that a Jobs company transformed. Among Apple’s many achievements, the importance of a piece of software—Final Cut Pro—is sometimes overlooked. It is not an overstatement to say that the intuitively designed digital editing program owned by Apple has transformed the way movies are made. Several Academy Award nominees for Best Editing have been forged on Final Cut Pro software, and one winner (The Social Network, somewhat fittingly). The program has transformed the face of independent filmmaking too, as one of the essential components that has lowered the cost and generally eased the process of making a film. (It’s a testament to the program’s importance that its recent, ill-designed update caused such an uproar.)

But the most transformative effect Steve Jobs had on the way we tell stories surely came from his iRevolution, from the proliferation of those sleekly designed, elegant devices that have changed the way we interact with each other. I compose this post on a MacBook; much of the reporting I’ve done in my career that informs it was facilitated with an iPhone. I swear by both. As do millions of happy customers who have similarly used Steve Jobs’s products to tell the stories of their lives—to schedule their appointments, calculate their routes, send their e-mails, browse their favorite corners of the Web, or watch their favorite Pixar movies.

Storytelling was in his veins, in fact. Jobs’s biological sister (he was put up for adoption; she, born later, was not) became an acclaimed novelist, writing a book clearly inspired by him.

Steve Jobs’s own story came to a close yesterday, sooner than he or anyone would have liked. But as he said in a Smithsonian oral history interview conducted in 1995:

“I’ve always felt that death is the greatest invention of life. I’m sure that life evolved without death at first and found that without death, life didn’t work very well because it didn’t make room for the young. It didn’t know how the world was fifty years ago. It didn’t know how the world was twenty years ago. It saw it as it is today, without any preconceptions, and dreamed how it could be based on that. We’re not satisfied based on the accomplishment of the last thirty years. We’re dissatisfied because the current state didn’t live up to their ideals. Without death there would be very little progress.”

It came too soon, but death’s hovering presence was what drove Steve Jobs to achieve what he did. A new generation doesn’t know what the world was like without Apple devices. Hopefully the next visionary is among them, and will deliver new twists and turns in what could rightly be the greatest story in human history: the epic of technological progress.

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