10 October 2011

What he left behind

This blog is supposed to be about nanotechnology, capitalism and innovation.  Almost all of my posts have related to the first or the last topics-- precious few have related to the one in the middle: capitalism.  And that's a shame, as capitalism bridges the two and has given us so much.

The past few days saw the passing of the most successful capitalist in generations.  His was a classic story: Steve Jobs started with nothing: a castoff child, a dropout.  His career took some wrong turns, but evidently he learned from them, and he built (and re-built) what is currently the most valuable company on Earth.

Somehow his passing seems to have affected people more than most executive deaths.  It's quite the phenomenon.  After all, Apple recently nudged Exxon into the #2 position, and who remembers the founders of Exxon?

I think it has to do with a sense of generational loss: In Jobs we saw the leader we wish our leaders were more like.  We saw the visionary who made dreams happen, who defined the fresh and graceful.  We saw the guiding big brother who showed us how it's done.

That's what's gone now, and folks are feeling it, though maybe without the words.  But it's there.  It's there in the shrines of flowers, the candles, the yellow-stickied goodbyes, and the apples-with-a-bite-missing arrayed in front of Apple's retail stores.  It's there in the paeans of pundits around the world, the front-page photos, the presidential condolences and the online appreciations.  It's there.


Jobs had a lot to say about death in his Stanford commencement speech, which I urge you to watch.  He was one of the few captains of industry fearless enough to philosophize and talented enough not to make a laughingstock of himself doing it.  

There's something that lives on, then, and it's much more valuable than all the AAPL shares in the world: like a good big brother, sadly departed, he left behind inspiration.  And inspiration is where advancement starts under our system.  It underlies the willingness to risk, the drive to succeed, to make something of nothing.  It underlies entrepreneurship.  Defines it.  Defines ambition, animates hope.

We need more of that.  Its loss is what makes us weep.

One thing that was unique about Jobs was the breadth of his accomplishments.  Most historic entrepreneurs are content to build one business or one industry.  To have built and revolutionized so much across so many fields takes a special kind of gift, and not just as an inventor: as a team-builder, a network-spanner, a persuader and communicator and negotiator and all those other things.  Consider:
  • The personal computer (Apple II)
  • The personal computer, again (Macintosh)
  • The laptop (PowerBook)
  • The personal computer, a third time (NeXT)
  • Animated feature films (Pixar)
  • Personal media players (iPod)
  • Music distribution (iTunes is now the world's largest media store)
  • Software distribution (the App Store)
  • Computer retailing (Apple Stores)
  • Personal computers, iteration 3.5 (Mac OS X, the commercial second coming of NeXT)
  • Cell phones (iPhone)
  • Personal computers, round 4 (iPad)...
...And that's just off the top of my head and excludes the monumental turn-around of Apple, Inc as it twitched and gasped in extremis after his twelve years wandering in the desert, its worth less than its cash in the bank.  

In none of these was Jobs the first-mover, but he brought a unique business approach to bear.  For example, Apple did not invent the mouse-- that original implement for driving a computer's graphical user interface.  He licensed what he needed from Xerox, paying with Apple stock.  Xerox's mouse cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  Apple's retailed for $29.  

It's too pat to sniff, "Well, he didn't invent it, he just commercialized it."  Exactly!  That's the very essence of meaningful innovation.  Edison didn't invent the first light bulb, either, as Joseph Swan demonstrated in court.  But until Edison came along, the light bulb didn't happen.  Edison made it happen by nailing the details and building the teams and establishing the networks that made it affordable, made it reliable, made it marketable, made it supportable by the necessary infrastructure and ecosystem, made it comprehensible and accessible to the common man... 

See the difference?  It's the difference between the inventor and the entrepreneur.  

Then look at the great entrepreneurs, the Fords and the Perots and the Hewletts and Packards and Varian brothers and the Larry Ellisons and Michael Dells and Bill Gates and... well, the list goes on and on, and they all did basically one or perhaps two startups, or shepherded one or perhaps two revolutions, or built or flipped maybe one or two technologies, bless 'em all.  The likes of Steve Jobs, on the other hand, come once a generation.  Besides Edison, only Howard Hughes comes to mind as a serial entrepreneur of such diverse accomplishments in the past century.  They're exceedingly rare.

Of course, there are detractors.  Haters, even.  Jobs was a tyrant, some will tell you, a prick, brutal and dehumanizing to his targets.  Sure.  That's almost a given among historic entrepreneurs.  Edison was a prickly, mercurial, arrogant, claim-jumping son of a bitch.  Henry Ford wasn't Mr. Nice Guy either, and a raging anti-Semite on top of it.  Hughes was a psychological basket case who trusted no one.  Historic-class entrepreneurs are odd, even damaged, and pretty much uniformly not-nice, at least in their business arena.  There, niceness is not what it's about.  Gladiators tend not to be nice in the ring.

But that's not their entirety.  In Jobs' case, I never met him but have some mutual friends, and they're pretty ripped up.  He was, after all, rather young, with kids still at home and a lovely, kind wife he adored.  By all accounts (and see this charming Quora thread for some of them) he had a sort of quiet, out-of-the-spotlight charity and was a devoted family man.  Personally, I'll miss him for his his exemplification of so much that is uniquely American, for his unabashed philosophizing, and of course for his cool products.  But there are his family members and many friends who really mourn him, because Business Steve and Personal Steve were different people.  My heart goes out to them in their loss.

Personally, I believe our Creator gave each of us unique gifts.  And just as we are disappointed when things we give to others sit on a shelf unappreciated, I believe we disappoint God when we fail to use our gifts to their utmost.  Jobs and I are of different faiths, but I think we'd agree on that.  Certainly we disappoint ourselves, down deep, when we play it safe, notch it down, avoid risk and otherwise keep those gifts in their wrappers.  But rarely, we encounter a person who uses his gifts to the hilt, each and every day.  Such a person leaves this world with fewer regrets than most of us, I suspect.  And though their passing pains us most, it should grieve us least, because their example--their inspiration--will feed the next generation of their kind.

Like a guiding big brother, Steve Jobs showed us how it's done.  And the world--and the future--is a better place for it.