Friday, October 7, 2011

The Fate of Rational Men: The Enigma that was Steven Jobs

By Son of Bastiat
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish” – Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford

The above quote that Steve Jobs ended his 2005 Stanford U commencement address with, (and could well have served as his motto if he had one), comes as an admonition and final sentence in “The Whole Earth Catalogue” a book that in a NY Times 10/06/11 obituary Jobs said “had influenced him greatly as a young man”, adds a final touch of mystery to the enigmatic life that ended yesterday. In the coming days, as the world pays its deep respects to his memory, accolades like “iconic”, “visionary” and “genius” will be heaped on him; he will be compared to Edison, Ford, Rockefeller and Walton, all rolled into one. 

When it comes to lexicon, there is no doubt that Jobs was every word and every lofty idea that embody them. Do these terms describe him? More frankly: Who is the Steven Jobs who passed away yesterday?

The Fables of Successful Enterprise

Begin with the romantic stories, likely to be mythical, of how supermen come to the world of ordinary men. Months after Steve’s birth his short family life ends with his mother giving him up for adoption, because her father wouldn’t abide having a Syrian for a son-in-law. In the annals of enterprise, drastic early life experiences such as a divorce, adoption, abandonment (or in Gates’ case a latchkey childhood) always mark the tipping point separating mortal from immortal. Circumstances like extreme penury or, in Jobs case his family’s lack of means to send him to college, help reinforce the romantic narrative of outsiders rising, phoenix-like, from nothingness to rarefied heights reserved exclusively for the anointed. 

Recent articles have regaled readers with probably apocryphal tales of Jobs retrieving empty soda cans and turning them in for cash; and walking 7 miles across the Reed College campus (Portland, OR) in order to save on fare so he could partake of low cost meals at a Krishna temple. One who can get admitted to Reed cannot be that mendicant. The height of all this icon-buffing, of course, are stories of dropping out of college (he left after a semester) “in order not to deplete my parents’ savings” that if true, catapults its object of devotion into the realms of iconic dropouts who not only left school because they found it a waste of time, but out of love for their struggling parents. A common enough story in the Third World, it is something so rare and edifying and coveted that another drop out (Gates) could only perhaps fantasize about. Those stories can only enhance the image of a spare, disciplined and concerned upbringing, fitting right in with the classical narratives of success so dear to historians of enterprise.    

The Truth Value of Hard Facts

In a class by themselves are the fables that inspire awe and bestow on their tellers the status of “entrepreneurs par excellence”. There is the “Tale of the Garage” where things as novel and as earthshaking as digital personal computers see the first light of day in a place as decrepit and dingy as where the family car is towed at night. Only the fact that this event did not happen centuries ago keeps a manger full of braying horses and donkeys from being used as the backdrop to such a historical event.  Instead it turns out that most stories about incubating ventures in garages are a load of c_ _p; the most likely places, in declining order of frequency are: the kitchen table (for convenient access to the coffeepot); followed by the tool shack for easier reach of tools and parts; and last at the local library most incubators are likely to be mental than physical at least at the onset. It is possible that Jobs briefly stored his PC parts in his family garage, but he also rented an office in town. 

Next come “The Bootstrap” narratives, where the hero always manages to come up with the key insight, the dramatic solution to the problem that had bugged all before that fateful moment. In Jobs’ case, this consisted in stories of how the first personal computer was put together in trial and error experiments using parts and ideas learned in countless sessions with fellow members of the Homebrew Computer Club, an association of electronic hobbyists based in Menlo Park. The reality about the first PC is far from that; a few years previously, the Altos, the first working PC was invented in, of all places, Albuquerque, New Mexico and kits came into the hands of and were assembled by Jobs and his putative partner Steve Wozniack. With Apple’s startup capital placed at all of $ 1,300, their tinkering could not have been of a kind sufficient to radically redesign an existing and working personal computer. So much, then, for the appellation “father of the personal computer” that has been attached to Jobs’ name.

Even more dramatic exaggerations are tales of how Apple II (in its advanced models) revolutionized the personal computer with its incorporation (“adaptation”) of the GUI (graphic user interface) and mouse, two of the most crucial innovations that along with Visicalc, accelerated the use of personal computers. Again, unfortunately both were invented somewhere else, in Palo Alto’s XEROX Parc, then a leading technology company in Silicon Valley and in the Northeast, where it was originally based. Jobs himself acknowledged this in an interview, remarking how “apocalyptic” an experience it was to watch the Altos PC being controlled by a mouse from commands displayed in a graphical medium and not by typing statements or codes the way IBM PC and other computers did. So much again, for “bold pioneering”.    

In fact Jobs was neither an expert in computer technology (Wozniack was the hardware guy) nor in its programming; for some reason he failed to foresee the possibilities in what would later on become the world wide web – now a much bigger field than personal computing itself and which could prove to be its ultimate Nemesis. This technology was created by Tim Berners Lee, who worked as a programmer at NEXT. 

Jobs’ unique talent was not in technology development but in envisioning its social interface and application. This proves that there are few payoffs in high technology per se; what is prized and truly creates value is technology that addresses a need, in the PC’s case, needs without customers or that present ones fail to see. In creating the IPhone, IPod and IPad Jobs deserved to be called a true visionary.

Stunning Success, but at what price? 

All the foregoing stellar accomplishments, even when corrected, would have been more than enough to fill in ten lifetimes for an ordinary man; but as Steve Jobs was not an ordinary man, it is only fair to also look at their antitheses, exceptional not being synonymous with perfect.

The most telling of Jobs’ known failings was his aloofness, his brash, almost tyrannical style especially in the early years. Whereas outsiders to his world were led to believe that he was “charismatic, altruistic and genial” when dealing with others, in the company of his closest friends and associates he was far from such especially early on. In private he was perfunctory, formal and even cold especially about personal things, except when he was inquiring about the status of projects or matters related to work in general. He was suave and even charming with customers, but those who observed, felt and experienced his stern lashings knew that Jobs’ primary concerns were functional, sometimes to the point of being harsh if expectations were not met. 

Jobs’ demands from his associates and subordinates were so total that Apple’s culture was for a while sublimated to it; many have pointed out how his successor Tim Cook  has taken on Jobs’ appearance and mannerisms, a sign of how loyalty to a man can take on blind emulation. Personality cults are commonplace among CEOs, but egoistic values can be devastating during successions, and while Jobs did not seem to indulge it, he did not discourage it either.       

As if that was not bad enough, this lack of warmth extended even to his relationships with close kin, to the point of meeting a sister only late in adulthood, who wrote a novel that portrayed him in an unflattering light. About his immediate family made up of a wife and three children (and a child from a former sweetheart) little is known; Jobs himself was aware of how remote he was to his children. Many successful men are driven to the extremes of limiting family interactions or keeping such affairs private.

In this regard, Jobs was a stereotype, but one can question its wisdom when used to rebuff his 80 year old biological father’s request, expressed in calls and emails, for a brief chance to meet him before it was all over. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable with digging up the painful memories of his abandonment; perhaps he wanted to avoid legal issues that could ensue, something which his old man disavowed the slightest interest in, saying: “All I wanted was to have a cup of coffee with my son”. Today that one chance in a trillion is gone forever because of Steve’s hard stonewalling. Such is the lot of people who are too rational – they give up the few opportunities to be happy with those who are close to them.         

Why a Rational Life Means Bearing with Unhappiness

A clue to this enigma is seen in his interior life: except for a youthful dalliance with Buddhism Jobs has never affiliated with any formal worship or faith. Spare in his lifestyle, he was not a materialist, let alone a hedonist. At the same time he was never big on philanthropy, once setting up a humanitarian foundation only to disband and divert its funds to acquire PIXAR. At a pledging session held for wealthy businessmen, he was among those who did not commit to donate, and Apple today is a rare American company that has no formal corporate giving program or philanthropic endeavors. If it has, it is nominal.  

Stay hungry. Stay foolish. What could Steve Jobs have had in mind when he cited this quote in his 2005 commencement address? It means simply this: that total devotion to one’s calling means keeping away (staying hungry) from the pleasures of material success, family, personal relations and even faith. In this he was a cold, unsentimental and rational being, finding the greatest meaning in achievement. At the same time he felt that accolades or ties ultimately amounted to nothing, fleeting as they are in life, and counting for nothing after death. This is why he believed that quests for fame or relationships are ultimately foolish. 

One will never be able to know exactly what thoughts played inside Jobs’ head as he lived his final days, but if Freud’s insights on un-reconciled death are of any use, one can deduce that he probably was in great sorrow, despite it being said that he died peacefully. This is why to the end he resisted exchanging a few words with his expectant father; the rational side of him knew that there was no use. 

It is life’s ultimate paradox: he who knows least is the happiest; he who knows the most, suffers.         

Copyrights by V. Ricasio, NYC 2011


  1. Thank for capturing the Steve Jobs that I know. The same man who stiffed the partner who helped him earn a $5,000 bonus reaped only $350 from the guy he helped. This was an amoral (and sometimes immoral) individual who is the darling of the technological world, yet could not change a light bulb because of his lack of technological know-how. Everything I have come to know about Jobs drives me to the conclusion that he is the quintessential disciple of Jean Paul Sartre. For those who want to know Jobs, there is no better place to look than the manner of his death.
    Thank you for decorating the echo of my thoughts with the music of your presentation.

  2. What a great piece, Vic. Upon reading your thoughts and after reviewing Job’s other public reflections, I’ve come to the conclusion that he did not believe in life after death. To him everything ground to a stop when he dies. That is why he thinks “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

  3. Steve Jobs is Steve Jobs, but wy ruined a party. He serves as an inspiration to those who have nothing. His harse experiences in a formative age, made him what he is, but overall, he did inspire and change the world to a better place. One more thing, after reading this article he sounds like a Republican to me, I wonder what is his political affiliation. Nevertheless, I tipped my hat for this man.