great jobs

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.

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4 thoughts on “great jobs

    • I sure do! I remember being so incredibly distracted I could hardly taste my meal, and that was a pretty fine meal …

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  1. Hey there Ginsu, how’ve you been?

    I appreciate your post and it raises an important message about life balance for entrepreneurs.

    That said, I knew Steve Jobs personally and I have to defend his honor here in terms of his own life choices and how highly he prioritized home life and family. Your post makes some leaps and assumptions that really, with all due respect, inaccurately characterize the man.

    While it is true that he spent a number of years almost as a nomad avoiding family life, once he met Laurene (he liked to call her “Lo”) all of that changed. He fell in love with her the day he met her and he was just as much in love with her if not more so by the day this world lost him. He also loved his kids, especially his oldest, Reed, who really is the next Steve Jobs — mark my words. It was not long before Lo was pregnant and Steve proposed. Six months after they were wed, Reed was born and he never ever looked back.

    He was home for dinner without fail just about every night (the rule rather than the exception). He really wanted to be present for his kids and was involved in all the goings on of the entire household. His remark about why he did the bio was a statement that many have taken radically out of context. It actually had more to do with the opposite of what most people think because the family life was intentionally very insular from Steve’s fame and I think he wanted to share that with them later and have him learn of his big life as a public figure through the book rather than him boasting to them. It was SO important that these kids have the grounding of a normal childhood. He genuinely regarded Lo as his soul mate and his family may have been the one and only thing he loved just as much if not more than Apple. He was SO proud of those kids.

    Now then, having said all of the above, the inventor/innovator on him, much like most Apple devices, had no off switch. He was ALWAYS repeat ALWAYS actively thinking about projects, ideas, improvements to be made. He was voracious about his passion for technology at the intersection of the liberal arts and really felt empowered like never before to make a lot of things he’d always wanted to do and turn them into reality. So while he was in the homestead, he was constantly working, researching, dreaming up new ideas. And he did a lot of micromanaging. Have you ever known any other multi-billionaire CEOs that took on answering generic customer emails directly? He checked his public inbox every single night without fail and frequently wrote people back. He literally never stopped thinking about this stuff but that was his essential nature. It was his life purpose being lived out and he enjoyed every second of it.

    Losing Steve leaves an enormous vacuum in his stead. And I can say that the place where he is missed most of all is in his household where he was more present than anywhere else. Because he WAS there and he made a HUGE commitment to being present and involved. He saw it as his supreme duty to be there and to let his kids know they mattered to him.

    I’m sorry to mess with your fine blog, but I just felt compelled to defend Steve’s honor with respect to his life choices. He may have been what he does but not at the cost of family. And if you knew Steve, you’d know that he also equally DID WHO HE WAS. The work he did and the products he motivated into the world were really extensions of who he was and what he believed in and even loved. They were almost artistic expressions of his thoughts, ideals, passions, and even dreams.

    Somehow, in my mind, if there IS an afterlife, and his spirit has gone onto the next realm, I like to believe he is STILL looking over his beloved family and dreaming up the next insanely great thing.

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    • Hi Robert! I appreciate the comment, and don’t consider it messing with the blog at all. I certainly never knew the man, and the only time I saw him in person, he was having lunch with his son. Nevertheless, I don’t think it does dishonor to Jobs to say that his exhortations towards greatness are not about urging us to focus on our families. Really, I’m not objecting to what he said, I’m questioning whether people who repeat his words in the wake of his death are too willing to read them as soft-hearted blandishments, rather than the uncompromising call to action that I take them to be.

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