Encomiums in honour of Steve Jobs have been flowing freely the past week following his resignation as CEO of Apple, the company which he co-founded in the 1970s and which has showered magical devices upon an enchanted world. He has been acclaimed as “the Thomas Edison of this century”, “the da Vinci of our time” and, less grandly, “a latter-day Marshall McLuhan”. Jobs himself has implied comparisons with figures as diverse as Gandhi and Bob Dylan. Perhaps the writer who cuts him down to size as “the IT world’s only rock star” has a point, but the majority opinion seems to be that the man is a genius.
What the media has left out, on the whole, is where all this genius came from. There have been stories mentioning his family background but these have been mere sideshows to the retrospectives on Jobs’ extraordinary career. None of that drama might have happened, however, if a young, unwed graduate student back in 1955 had not offered her unplanned baby for adoption.
If her father had not objected to her Syrian boyfriend, Joanne Simpson might have married Abdulfattah John Jandali then and there (instead of later, after her dad died) and Steve Jobs’ story might have been completely different. He could still have been a genius, but he might never have met Steve Wozniak, sat in on calligraphy classes or founded Apple. He might have been a brilliant lawyer or politician — or a mediocre one. We don’t know.
What we do know is that millions of people around the world have fallen in love with Apple’s creations: the Macintosh (it was the first computer I ever used and its mouse and icons seemed ever so cute), the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad. That Apple under his leadership went from two guys in a garage to a $2 billion dollar Silicon Valley company in 10 years. That it currently employs 50,000 people. That in the last 14 years, since Jobs returned to the company, his sense of what makes technology desirable has led from one triumph to another, until early this month Apple briefly overtook Exxon Mobil to become the world’s most valuable company.
And don’t forget Pixar, Jobs’ Hollywood project that put smiles on the faces of countless millions with computer-animated movie hits such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo.
Not everyone is in love with Steve Jobs, of course. From the colleagues who engineered his departure from Apple in 1986 to iPad users who can’t use Adobe Flash Player on their favourite gadget, he has upset many people over the years. He has been called smug, wilful, bad-tempered, a micro-manager, someone who takes credit for other people’s inventions, who drives around without licence plates and parks his Mercedes in handicapped peoples spaces. Both the music and publishing industries only reluctantly accepted his monopolistic terms for giving access to their products through Apple devices. His backdating of stock options has caused scandal — as also has his apparent absence from the philanthropy scene (an exception being a $100,000 donation to the pro-same-sex marriage, anti-Prop 8 campaign in California in 2008).
Even his critics, however, acknowledge his shrewdness, his uncanny sense of where technology can move next, and when it should. As Fortune magazine said three years ago, Jobs was not only regarded as the most successful CEO around, he had “even become a global cultural guru, shaping what entertainment we watch, how we listen to music, and what sort of objects we use to work and play. He has changed the game for entire industries.”
How different the world would look without Steve Jobs. Yet, if he had been conceived just 20 years later, in the wake of Roe v Wade and with another iconic American enterprise — Planned Parenthood — doing a brisk trade in abortions, it might well have missed out on him. In the 1950s, however, abortion was illegal and probably Joanne Simpson never gave it a thought. When things got complicated at home she quietly went off to San Francisco to have the baby and give him up for adoption.
Here is the story as Steve Jobs told it in a commencement address at Stanford University in June 2005. His birth mother, he said,
felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
Despite his dominance in the Apple empire, Jobs has always depended on the genius and commitment of other people as well as his own. In his birth mother we meet the most important of these people — a woman who not only respected her child’s life but wanted to give him the best chance in life that she could think of in her circumstances. She thought it out, laid down her conditions, and took responsibility for what she had begun.
Fast forward to today’s college campus, awash with contraceptives and safe-sex propaganda, where a girl who gets pregnant will find a ready offer of an abortion and is likely to take it up without much consideration of what her options really are.
How many people of genius have never seen the light of day because it is now taken for granted that an unintended pregnancy is necessarily an unwanted child?
Fifty-six years ago, it’s true, the baby who became known as Steve Jobs was rejected at the last minute by the lawyer couple who had signed up to adopt Ms Simpson’s child. But there was a working-class couple, Clara and Paul Jobs, who just wanted a baby. Period. They were good people who, when the moment came, were prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to send him to college. There are still a lot of people like that around, only they don’t get the chance to adopt because most of the inconvenient babies are destroyed. Infertile couples have to go offshore to find a child, sometimes by very dubious processes. What a difference a few decades can make; what a sad difference.
In his address to the Stanford students Steve Jobs told three stories: the first was about the serendipity that “connected the dots” between his dropping out of college and designing the first Mac. The second was about “love and loss” — mainly about the love for his work that has inspired and energised his professional life. Crucially, it was also what made him able to start again after being “fired” from his own company in 1986 and becoming “a very public failure”.
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
This included his marriage to Laurene Powell, with whom he has three children.
I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.
Jobs’ third story was a bit like the second. It was also about loss: about getting cancer, confronting his own mortality and deciding what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
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.
Since then, with a reprieve from his illness, he has led Apple to new heights of innovation and market eminence, making the company the flagship of a flagging economy.
Is it fanciful to think that the example set by his biological mother helped him not only to begin again after that early episode of public failure, but also to confront the possibility of an early death with realism and even optimism? Probably. And yet, there is a similar spirit evident in the way mother and son handled their respective crises. Focus on life and get on with it, is what they seem to tell us.
Think different, the Apple campaign of the late 1990s urged. If there is one issue on which today’s civil and political leaders need to think differently it is the value of a human being. The urge to prevent births which has been upon them for the past 60 years has delivered a sickly economy and a notable lack of truly visionary leaders. They should think carefully about the Steve Jobs phenomenon and learn.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.