The death of Steve Jobs raises and answers the question that haunts the psyches of ambitious entrepreneurs everywhere: “Was it worth it?”
Praise follows death like the glowing debris that trails a comet, and the writing in the sky says that Jobs was the greatest CEO ever. A few muted voices remember that he was famously harsh to work with, but this is universally regarded as an entirely justified mania for perfection. Considering his accomplishments, it seems almost irrelevant that he denied the obligations of paternity for one child, and consciously decided that his children should know him through biography rather than time spent with him, even – or especially – in the final stretch towards death, when the remaining time must be remorselessly allotted like oxygen in a sealed room.
This isn’t criticism of a great man. It’s a reminder that many of us would willingly make the same choices, were such greatness within our reach.
We say it’s not so, and try to believe it. We encourage each other to remember family, remember health, remember that a life of striving includes the quest to achieve a full and humane life through our work. But the life of Jobs is the story of his jobs, of his one true job: making a dent in the universe through the creation of products that become a part of our lives. For his success in that, we forgive and excuse his personality defects. We cannot blame a man for failing to uphold principles that we would throw aside ourselves if only we could be assured that the universe was malleable to our touch.
Saying that “you are not your job” is a comfort; it alleviates the cognitive dissonance between your self-image and the productive economic output you contribute to the world. The lessons of Steve Jobs deny that comfort; his strongest exhortations insist that you are all about the things you make for the world – not for yourself, not for your hobbies or leisure, not even for your family and certainly not your friends if you have any. You have to do great work, never settle, remember that each day could be your last, don’t waste time living someone else’s life.
There is no obligation to community, family or friendship in these words – though strangely, there is an overwhelming commitment to society in the desire to dent the universe, for this is not a universe of cold cosmological phenomena, it’s a universe of people, and his ambition is all about changing how people live. For Jobs, if this ambition involved sacrifices of a more universal personal nature, there is no question that it was worth it. It was worth it for him, and his efforts were certainly worth it for us.
It’s touching to see the determination with which Jobs’ sayings are repeated in the wake of his death. But the message of his most appealing words isn’t quite the message of his life. He told us to follow our hearts, to trust our intuitions, to ask ourselves if our plan for this day is how we’d want to spend our last. But those are not goals, they are only beautiful means to an uncompromising end. The goal of Jobs was to be insanely great in a world-changing way. That’s the hard part of the message to understand. All of us can hope to understand what is in our own hearts, and can hope to have the courage to follow it. Almost no one alive has a realistic ambition to change the world – what many of us think of as world changing is merely interesting, hopefully entertaining, and possibly enriching.