Why Steve Jobs Matters

Oct 6 2011 @ 12:09pm

The reason he strikes such a huge chord with an entire generation lies, it seems to me, beyond his immense technical and business and design skills. It was because he became the bridge between the 1960s and the 1980s, the counter-culture and the counter-counter-culture. He was the hippie capitalist. He was the fusion of two great American forces – personal actualization and a free market. Listening to his Stanford Commencement speech above is a revelation, isn't it? He was a baby turned over for adoption by his biological parents. He dropped out of school. He was fired at the age of 30 by the very company he had founded. And in the face of early humbling, he focused on his own vision and his own passion – an individualist creed forged in the crucible of a sure knowledge of his own mortality, of his own death.

This passage resonates very deeply with me:

Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

These are the words of a man with great spiritual insight, and the courage to live it (because true spirituality requires extreme courage). His worldview was forged by an eery prescience of his own mortality. He got there long before his cancer diagnosis, which, perhaps, was why he transcended it with six of the most spectacularly creative and successful years of his life. And this fusion of counter-cultural courage with capitalist genius is what defines our time – as well as the fear-ridden reaction against it.

Jobs simply defied convention at every stage in his life. He saw how the arts could deeply inform the sciences in revolutionizing human life and interaction. He dropped out of college in order to intensify his learning. And that learning came from many sources:

After dropping out of Reed College, a stronghold of liberal thought in Portland, Ore., in 1972, Mr. Jobs led a countercultural lifestyle himself. He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.

Decades later he flew around the world in his own corporate jet, but he maintained emotional ties to the period in which he grew up. He often felt like an outsider in the corporate world, he said. When discussing the Silicon Valley’s lasting contributions to humanity, he mentioned in the same breath the invention of the microchip and “The Whole Earth Catalog,” a 1960s counterculture publication.

This is the fusion that has made the best in our modern world – and those who reflexively mock the counterculture miss its spiritual genius because they are incapable of the courage needed to understand it better. Think of Pixar. I remember during the darkest days after 9/11 feeling bleaker about the future than ever before in my life. And I went to see a Pixar movie. For some reason, I came out feeling better about the world and its prospects. If a civilization could produce that kind of genius conflation of the left and right sides of the brain, if it could also turn that into exquisite beauty and laughter and even sadness, then this civilization was a formidable force against its nihilist fundamentalist enemies at home and abroad. No politician – save Obama at his best – ever reassured in quite that comprehensive a way. And what was reassuring was that this had been rooted in a vision from an individual who took no-one else's lead and had the courage to realize it, to his own exacting standards of perfection. That's America at its best.

Steve Jobs' approach to life is terrifying for most of us, because it demands firstly the hardest thing – facing death – and then its necessary, scary corollary – living your own life, and no one else's. These are difficult things, the bequests of a modernity we were born into, and perhaps beyond most human beings. Hence the enduring nihilist appeal of fundamentalism in all its forms – a fundamentalist approach to religion, in which fallible words are turned into literalist gods; a fundamentalist approach to politics, in which every problem is defined by a dogma and every solution found in a catechism; and a fundamentalist approach to life, which is rooted in obedience and rules and the false comfort of Manicheanism, rather than freedom and love and terrifying, liberating existential doubt.

You cannot teach these things in a book. But you can see them in a life. And every life lived without fear is a life that can sustain and nourish others. And Jobs truly lived without fear – which enabled him to create beyond the measure of most mortals. That he had, in the end, everything to fear – a rare pancreatic cancer slowly moving toward him – only makes his energy and spirit more vibrant.

He was alive when he died.

How many of us live as if we were already dead?