I never got to meet Steve Jobs. But he changed my life more than once.
The stuff Apple makes has become central in my professional and personal life. But that has been happening since the mid-1980s. I was on the staff of my college newspaper which was still using typewriters and brought in my first computer–a Commodore 64–to use instead of the typewriters. That led to the faculty advisors making the move to al all Mac newsroom. Bought my own first Mac in I think ’88. Had to decide between a 10MB and 20MB HARD DRIVE. And the 20 was several hundred dollars more than the 10 and, hell we were NEVER going to use 20 MB. I mean that was just crazy talk.
Our first color machine was a Mac II “pizza box and another decision. A big $600 for 16MB of RAM. As semi-newly married folks with a small child that was a huge investment but one we never regretted. Mr. Jobs actually pissed me off pretty bad when he came back to Apple from his exile and killed the Mac OS clone machine program. I had one of those machines and was less than happy that it became obsolete with one decision from on high.
Ironically, that is also the kind of stuff that made me such a fan. Jobs did what he thought was the right thing. Always. And sometimes people thought he was nuts and he left some destruction in his wake. But he was always true to his own vision.
So, that is like intro stuff. This is not about technology. It is about being true.
He taught me about finding another way to get where you wanted to go when a seemingly insurmountable obstacle was thrown in your path. He got FIRED from his own company and instead of slinking away and spending his days on a golf course, he went out and found someone with better technology and ideas than he had and worked with them. Remember Next? the BeOS? Where you aware that OS that most think was a momentary blip in the tech timeline is at the core of every Mac OS named after a feline?
Jobs forced me to re-examine some of my political beliefs when he publicly blasted teachers’ unions as a big “part of the problem” in education in 2007. And it was another lesson in personal integrity and the willingness to be honest even when it appears to run against your best interests. Remember that Apple sold–and continues to sell–crap tons of stuff to the education market. So for him to publicly say that, “I believe that what’s wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way” is off the charts crazy for the CEO of a public company. In fact he knew it, following that with this gem. “Apple has lost some business in this state today, I’m sure.”
But the big one was in the past year. I have been disillusioned with the direction of my chosen profession for a long time. Publishing–especially trade, B2B magazines–has become a cesspool of tit-for-tat, “buy an ad and we’ll write whatever you want us to.” I tried to fight it but it was like–to steal a line from a writer I know–trying to remember that the objective was to drain the swamp when you are up to your ass in alligators. There was constant pressure to do the thing that would bring in the most money instead of the thing that our audience needed and expected and trusted us to do. Every day I stayed in it was soul-sucking and depressing. I started to drink. A lot. I came within inches of losing everything from my family to the job I had learned to hate to the people in the business who I really loved and respected.
I had been pushing the transition from print to digital from the time I was involved in my first online “magazine” in 1994. And even while i made my living in print, i worked on the side with friends and other folks who shared a future vision of publishing without paper. My efforts were a constant source of conflict with my employer who threatened to fire me over them pretty much annually. And it got ugly. I could feel some kind of gathering force but I didn’t know what it was. A friend told me I appeared to be “seeking my own personal wildfire.”
Then I happened upon a video that changed it all. I have written about it before so I’ll keep it short. He gave a commencement speech at Stanford called How To Live Before You Die. In it he talked about how people and events in our lives are sometimes leading us to places we would never plan and can really not imagine. He said that when he looked in the rear-view mirror of life, everything from his dropping out of college to his impulsive thought to sit in on a calligraphy class led directly to the way he viewed the world and how that view informed everything he did at Apple.
And that made me look at the past few years of my own life and was stunned to see how seemingly random events had led me to people and circumstances that had me standing at that stereo-typical crossroads. I could keep doing what i did and keep hating it and become more jaded and miserable. Or I could “take the next right step” and trust that somewhere down the line it would all make sense.
And so I sit here today. No real job, but a company that has grown about six-fold in six months. My wife and I spent months wondering how we were going to pay the mortgage. I sold a car. I sold gear. We emptied our savings. I still have the occasional panic attack over a lawsuit that was filed months ago accusing me of some pretty bad stuff. There is no actual basis for the legal action but I still don’t know if it is going to just go away or if it will bury me and my family. I go back to that video pretty often. It’s kind of my “touchstone.” A way for me to get centered and remember what is important.
So, thanks. Mr. Jobs. I am happier today than I have ever been and I believe with all my heart that me and my team are creating something pretty special. Some days things don’t seem to make any sense at all looking forward and so i remember to look behind and see how the dots connect and trust that they will continue to do so in ways i can’t even imagine. And i will try to remember this…
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Like I said at the beginning, I never met you but you changed my life. So, thank you, Mr. Jobs. Thank you for showing me it is OK to “think different.” And that sometimes it is the move that seems the craziest that is the one that ends up making the most sense.