On Steve and Stephen

The news of the day is the passing of Steve Jobs at 56. Much has and will be said about Jobs’ legacy. So let’s use this space to touch on the reactions to his death and what people have chosen to seize on. That the story was bigger than the business press is a given. That Apple posted it on the home page, tastefully, was to be expected. That Facebook scrolled on and on with comments from people who know me but probably not Steve? Puzzling.

I get that people really like Apple products. I get that Jobs has received the hagiography treatment with the added twist of resurrected prodigal. But the commentary is past believable. “The Einstein of our generation,” posted one acquaintance. “He brought beauty to the world,” posted another.

Steve Jobs was a successful businessman. He started a company and saved it. The people who work at that company, with prodding and evidently screaming, designed and created these products, always challenged by ‘the founder.’ They’re great products; my house is full of them.

Whether Jobs built a great company remains to be seen. Thomas Watson, Sr. laid the foundations of IBM in the 1930s but I don’t think you could call it great (successful, yes but great, maybe) until his son and successors proved that. For Apple the trick will be to keep up their game when firsthand experience of Jobs is gone.

Notice, though, that everything I just said relates to business and commerce. Einstein fundamentally changed human understanding of the universe. Gauguin and Modigliani brought forth beauty not seen before. For that matter, so did Keats and James Merrill. Let’s all take a deep breath and distinguish between genius and commercial success because at the end of the day an iPhone is a gadget, not the General Theory of Relativity or Ode on a Grecian Urn.

By now you may be wondering about Stephen.  I’ll get there. Let’s start, though, with the Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford that has been getting a lot of play. There are many fans of the piece and yet it has always struck me as profoundly adolescent. To be fair, he clearly says his revelation came at 17 yet anyone who’s passed that milestone ought to recognize the banality of what strikes a teen as profound. Only adolescents are so wrapped up in themselves that understanding the reality of death unleashes every form of first person pronoun in a torrent.  See for yourself:

Then there’s Stephen as in Colbert. In a 60 Minutes interview a few years back Colbert spoke about losing his father and brother when he was 10.  What he says is the impact of the loss was that he became detached from “normal behavior” because it just didn’t seem important. Those of us who lost parents or siblings in childhood will recognize that profound truth.  (The whole piece is worth watching but the  important part starts at 4:55.)

For me, all of Jobs’  observations and exhortations ring false. Sad as Jobs death is, he lived his life and moved on, as will we all. That’s the real lesson. Finding the humility to accept it–and I fail daily at finding humility, though I keep trying–is our task.

Godspeed Steve Jobs.

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