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I felt a bit awkward writing this. Cringe to be precise. The world is already filled with odes to Steve Jobs. Who needs one more? Yet, undoubtedly “discovering Steve” has had a profoundly positive impact on my life this year.
Jobs died a few months after I graduated university. His biography was released 3 weeks later. Both events made waves in the zeitgeist. I had no interest. This was before I knew what the tech industry was, and several years before I’d make my way into it. My only experience with an Apple product was an iPod nano that I had randomly won for opening a student bank account. (This is not such an unusual thing in Europe where Android still dominates). I liked my nano but I didn’t understand the cult of iPad-ers. My impression of Steve had been formed from media headlines never actively sought. To me, at that time, he was a mean man, whose company was allegedly using my homeland for tax avoidance. Yet another nefarious capitalist.
Over the years, Iike many others, I developed a fondness for his quotes. I listened to his Stanford commencement speech on repeat. I discovered the Mac and now can’t imagine a life where I ever again voluntarily opt to use a PC. He appealed to the idealist in me. A man who pursued his passion, pushed forward innovation while not compromising on the art, the soul of what he was creating. Yet I could never bring myself to truly like the idea of him. This was in part driven by my interactions with people who acted like a**holes, while proclaiming they were challenging his spirit. Folks with limited visions, questionable competence and inflated egos, adopting the strongman persona of Jobs, Musk, etc, in an attempt to push their teams towards greatness through bullying and fear. These attempts were rarely supported with a viable idea or business plan and rarely effective. The startup world is filled with these types. Being fearful I might end up like them, I never allowed myself to fully jump on the Steve-bandwagon.
That all changed earlier this year. I felt an unexplainable urge to read his biography. I’m a big believer in listening to whispers that drive you towards certain books. So I listened to it. On 2x speed. To be honest, I found the book quite dry in parts, yet it shifted something in me. I had been in an extended slump. Not depressed or apathetic. Just completely uninspired. This book revived me. It reminded me that it is possible to live a full life, that that is an ideal worth pursuing and that life is far too short. It also made me more at peace with my mistakes and flaws. Jobs was undoubtedly great but far from perfect. In serendipitous timing Make Something Wonderful, a curated collection of his written exchanges was published shortly after I finished his biography. The double helping cemented some key takeaways in my mind:
The Crying. The Emotions.
I had heard numerous tales of his gruffness and explosive temperament. What I hadn’t heard about was the crying. If his biography is to be believed he spent a lot of his 20s, his first decade at Apple, crying. While having disagreements. In meetings. At executives' houses. This vulnerability and emotional immaturity somehow escaped the mainstream narrative. Like many a creative genius, he was emotional. Too often in life, and especially in business, we are asked to push our emotions to the side. To be logical and objective, as if our emotions didn’t contain wisdom. As if they can be suppressed into inexistence. We tend to feel strong emotions, or provoke those in others, when there is a clash of values or an unearthing of an insecurity. I’m not advocating for always acting on these, or having emotions rule our mindset, but I can’t help but feel we are missing out on a human level, and even businesses by not embracing them more.
Sometimes you shouldn’t compromise.
The world often pushes us towards agreeableness. To be realistic. To find a solution that’s efficient. To adapt around others. It can be dilutive. Some desires are not worth compromising on. Some visions are worth striving for.
People are always collateral damage in business.
When Jobs returned to Apple several years after being fired, he layed off a lot of people. It was the right decision for a struggling business. Those people were the collateral damage of years of poor business planning. Jobs’ temper was well managed by those closest to him who knew when to listen, and when to ignore him, and how to handle the outbursts. But there were many people who ended up being the collateral damage of his lack of emotional regulation. People who left because they didn’t want to deal with it or who were fired while caught in the crosshairs of a disagreement. I’ve seen these scenarios play out countless times in startups. Poor business practices leading to layoffs. A founder's insecurities crushing an employee’s confidence. A manager’s biases stalling a report’s career. It’s not right. It’s not fair. Most of the time it’s not a reflection of you. If it is personal, it’s worth deciding if that is something you want to change. Feedback should not always be acted upon.
Chase your dots.
One of Jobs’ most famous quotes in about connecting the dots:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Chase your dots. Not just achievements. I’m not sure if we spend our lives discovering our innate purpose, or create it over time through our experiences, but I do believe that exploring the things you are drawn to, the dots, helps us in finding it.
He lived life on his terms.
How many of us can say that? I wouldn’t want to be Steve Jobs. I certainly don’t agree with all his values or decisions. Parts of the book, particularly the sections on how he treated his family, made me deeply uncomfortable. Despite all that, I find myself jealous of him. There’s a certain bravery in abandoning the status quo to live the exact life you want. Those who have found their thing - their purpose - experience a connection to life that is visible to those around them. Unreplicable without discovering your own unique blend of it. His story is a reminder that while you can’t control the seas (or even prevent yourself from being fired from your own company), you are the captain of your own ship.
Not everyone will find his story inspiring, but if the process of “discovering Steve '' has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to seek out inspiration regularly. To fill the well. It’s what allows me to see, and feel, the good and the great around me. Modern life can envelope us in drudgery and distraction if we allow it to. Actively embracing inspiration can remind us what it means to live a good life, on our terms.