On October 5th this year I was saddened to hear the news that Steve Jobs died. Steve Jobs has had a direct impact on many, many people, and has influenced countless millions of others. I fall into the first category, though Steve would never remember. I resisted writing about it in this blog to name-drop until several weeks after his passing, but I can resist no longer.
I met Jobs while attending a creativity seminar at Stanford University in 1994. He made a dinner speech to the three or four dozen attendees at the conference. Three things struck me from that day 17 years ago:
First, through a child-care miscommunication, Steve had to bring along his three year old. He explained, then plunked his son with a slice of pizza and a coloring book at a table nearby, and gave his talk. Having a two year old and infant at home at the time, it struck me how children are one of God’s great equalizers.
Second, after the talk, a half dozen of us hung around to ask some questions, and I did just to listen. When asked about NeXT, for which he was the CEO, he sloughed the question and started to talk about a really cool digital animation project down in LA that he was working on with George Lucas. Well, it turned out to be Pixar, and a year later Toy Story was released. When Steve talked about it, you could feel the excitement.
Third, I cannot remember a single idea, theme or word from his dinner talk, presumably something about creativity.
Watching Steve Jobs pacify his son, and having the scoop on Pixar was cool, but at that time the world was not all that enamored with Jobs. Later he would go back to Apple, rejuvenate the company, and eventually revolutionize multiple industries (music, telephones, etc) with a style we learned to expect from Pixar movie releases.
On the other hand, I have colleagues who worked directly for Steve Jobs. As we all have learned, Jobs was not always a joy to be around. He was demanding, arrogant, condescending and sometimes just rude. In fact, for some he was never pleasant. Sometimes being successful lets us get away with personality flaws, or at a minimum bad manners.
I have gathered a couple lessons from observing Jobs, once in person and the rest filtered through one media outlet or another.
First, all entrepreneurs, and for that matter leaders, are unique. The style differences between Jobs and Bill Gates are huge, but who can say who has the bigger impact on their world, their companies, and society. Vision is a very difficult thing to bring to reality, and anyone who leads and organization or has built a company will tell you there is no cook-book. If Jobs’ personality were different, might he have been less successful? For that matter, maybe he would have been just as successful or more if he had been less abrasive. Nobody will ever know. What impressed me about Jobs is he was genuine.
Second, a decade after I heard about Pixar, it dawned on me that when Lucas and Jobs were successful entrepreneurs “in between.” Lucas was immensely successful with Star Wars, but the trilogy of trilogies was bogged down. Jobs had left Apple, and by my assessment in 1994, wasn’t truly happy at NeXT. Together, they took advantage of an opportunity, partly by realizing their technology needed the creativity of Disney to really make it fly, but mostly (I think) because they were available at the time. The rest, as they say, is history. Likewise, while the technology to create an iPod existed for decades, it was not until distribution of music through the internet became a reality that the iPod changed the world. Jobs had the vision to drive the pieces together.
In the end, Steve Jobs has been an inspiration to me. Imperfect though he may have been, the world is a better place because he was a part of it.