Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Remembering Steve, ten years on.

Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011. There's plenty I could say, but I'll keep it to a few idle thoughts. Jobs came to occupy a spot on the small list of people whose very thinking I found worthy of study and emulation, yet he encapsulated his most deliberate and life-steering thoughts in mere paragraphs. His eyes cast over humanity, he had one foot firmly in the scientific and factual ("where are we?"), and the other in the potential ("where could we be?"). My favourite thought of his was that little monologue on "life," meaning the status quo. "Everything around you that you call life," he said, "was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it." If you reasonably define a pass-or-fail threshold to evaluate whether someone had successfully "changed life," Steve was about as far above as was possible. Subtract his influence from today's everyday, and it would look and feel like a science fiction-grade alternate timeline.

I think Steve's soul really was the foundation of Apple, as Tim Cook has since declared it would always be. When Steve said "we think," meaning "Apple thinks," he meant "I think," meaning he himself. From those thoughts, Apple's actions followed. After his death, the heavy question became whether Tim's declaration would be honoured and hold true. Steve's suggestion to Apple's staff had been the simplistic advice not to do what he would have done, but just to do "what's right." Tim Cook has overseen Apple's beyond-tenfold expansion since then. The futuristic, circular campus Steve appeared to present to the Cuperino City Council months before his death has been in regular use for a few years. The "Remembering Steve" page is still up.

People like to debate whether Apple has "done what's right," meandered from the path of stark lucidity Steve seemed to embody, or lost its way entirely, and much of that debate feels healthy and good-spirited.

As a response to enthusiasm for the inspiring work of any company, one component of such debates seems less valuable and more cynical: a pointing-out that they're "merely" a company, that their goal is to make money for their shareholders, that that's all they're good for, as though everything they do is more of a scam than a worthwhile endeavour. I'm not sure what worth even the speaker feels that claim has. That may indeed be the exclusive goal of some companies, but it seems such a foolish one, because any company that requires customers for success will appeal to them by cherishing common values, and the values of customers (unless they're all shareholders) are broader and higher than "fund a company." A company whose people really fathom the desires of customers will turn out to earn more money for shareholders than a company whose people are just pretending to.

Steve Jobs didn't have to choose the corporate world, and would probably have done something great if he hadn't. But he saw it as the vehicle for the realization of whichever visions he had, and whichever were still forming. For Apple (meaning for Steve), the business world was a good servant and a bad master, and so when asked by Mossberg and Swisher on stage about overtaking Microsoft in valuation, he said it was surreal, but that it didn't matter much, that it wasn't "what's important," that it wasn't what kept them coming to work every day, and that it wasn't why customers bought their products.

So, I think that anti-corporate cynicism is at least somewhat misguided, but fully misplaced on Jobs. Steve is a reminder that his sort of attitude can exist as much in people today, including in CEOs, as purely as it did in him. Rare, but possible. And in times of challenge for technology companies, when fear of risk overwhelmed creative impulses at the leadership level, Steve thought the appropriate response was to keep your chin up, trust your intellect and inner voice, and work to innovate your way out, and to get to greater things.