New York City, March 20, 1983: Steve Jobs is gazing at ancient Greek sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as he spends the day with John Sculley, the head of Pepsi and the man he has been trying for months to lure from the East Coast to become his partner in running Apple. They leave the museum, walk through Central Park, and head to the San Remo apartment house, Jobs’s future New York home. As they stand on the western balcony, peering across the Hudson River, Jobs pauses dramatically before delivering one of the most seductive recruiting pitches in history:
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”
That sentence would become one of Jobs’s most famous formulations, along with “insanely great” and “think different.” The basis of its power, the reason it was such an irresistible pitch, was this: Steve Jobs, then only 28 years old, had already changed the world, and would go on, over the next quarter century, to change it again and again.
While Jobs surely ranks as one of the most important figures in business and technology, he’s also one of the most influential cultural figures of our time, the motivating force behind the idea that business and work can be primary sources of creativity, fulfillment, and meaning in our lives; the belief that companies can foment cultural change; the notion that engineers and executives can think like artists; and the realization that good design and aesthetics matter in one of the world’s most cutthroat industries.
Jobs’s relentless pursuit of perfection was also a key part of his legend. In 1977, when Apple’s first corporate headquarters was in the same building as a regional sales office for Sony, he would stop by and ogle Sony’s marketing materials, admiring the graphics and logos, noticing the weight of the paper stock. For one of his public presentations, Jobs scrutinized 37 different color variations before picking the background for his projector slides.
The perfectionism extended to his home life as well: the first two houses he owned, in Los Gatos and Woodside, Calif., remained nearly empty for years because he couldn’t find the perfect furnishings.
And rather than relying on market research or focus groups for guidance, Jobs followed his own gut about product design. When he was creating the iMac, which combined a monitor and computer in the same casing, industry research said consumers wouldn’t buy this kind of so-called all-in-one design. But Jobs wasn’t deterred, telling a colleague, “I know what I want and I know what they want.”
He, of course, was right. And that sense of leading public tastes, rather than following them, is as important as anything else in Jobs’s genius. Perhaps equally astonishing is just how close he came to failing entirely.
Sculley, who succumbed to that balcony pitch and joined Apple as CEO, soured on Jobs only two years later, forcing him out of the company that Jobs saw as an extension of himself. Betrayed by the man he felt closest to in the world, Jobs seemed so depressed that one of his longtime friends, Apple executive Mike Murray, feared he was suicidal.
Jobs considered any number of randomly different paths, from expatriating to France to staying home at his huge, unfurnished old mansion in Woodside and cultivating his garden. Ultimately, his escapist fantasies were just that, and instead he persisted—tenaciously, resiliently—on the path he had begun following at 21. For most of the next decade he struggled as his two new companies, NeXT and Pixar, were so financially ruinous that he came close to blowing the entire $100 million fortune he had amassed from selling Apple stock.
But he didn’t give up, and his astonishing comeback and eventual triumph are as much a part of the Jobs legacy as the iPads and iPhones and Macs that have shaped our daily lives.
In 1995, only two years after his situation seemed hopeless, Pixar created Toy Story, the first full-length computer-animated feature film, and Jobs immediately took the company’s stock public and became a billionaire at age 40. He sold what was left of NeXT to Apple for a $400 million windfall, then, in the most stunning reversal of all, returned to Apple after more than a decade-long exile. The company that once seemed destined to die would ultimately be worth more than Microsoft and Google and second only to ExxonMobil as the most valuable company on earth.
For the past eight years, Jobs has repeated his signature tropes with his illness, coming perilously close to catastrophe only to rebound miraculously. He was diagnosed in 2003 with pancreatic cancer, but after nine months of hoping he could reverse the condition purely through diet, he underwent surgery that removed the tumor. A few years later he was in danger of starving to death because his body couldn’t digest proteins—then was saved by a liver transplant.
Throughout his illness, it always seemed as if Steve would triumph—that some combination of wealth and will and charmed luck would get him through. So it is that we try to come to terms with the fact that Steven Paul Jobs is dead at 56.
He was born out of wedlock to two intellectuals, Abdul-fattah Jandali and Joanne Simpson, graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but he was adopted at birth by a working-class couple in San Francisco. Paul Jobs was a high-school dropout who worked as a machinist, used-car salesman, repo man, and real-estate broker, and his wife, Clara, toiled part-time as a payroll clerk. The family’s means were modest, but Paul and Clara loved children and adopted two: Steve and his sister Patti.
Jobs’s closest friends from high school and his brief time in college remember him as a sweet and easygoing kid without the maniacal intensity and grandiose ambitions he would later be known for. His dealmaking skills were evident when he bought a stereo receiver at a yard sale, fixed it, and resold it at a profit. During 10th grade at Homestead High in Cupertino, Calif., he told his girlfriend, Chris-Ann Brennan, that he was going to be a millionaire.
But his business instincts were seemingly contradicted by his avid interest in the counterculture: he idolized Bob Dylan and spent hours listening to Dylan tapes on a reel-to-reel player. (Years later, he would quote an entire Dylan verse at a shareholders’ meeting.) During a pilgrimage to see a guru in India, he talked with college friend Dan Kottke about renouncing materialism. He considered entering a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan instead of starting Apple.
That dual interest—in business and counterculture—was a contradiction that he somehow kept suspended in his mind. Part of his genius, of course, would be to take the thesis of business and the antithesis of counterculture and create the synthesis of Apple: the idea that a company can promote revolutionary social change and that workers can be artists expressing their creativity.
Cofounding Apple in 1976 at age 21, Jobs seemed to realize instinctively that the personal computer would herald a revolution and he could be one of its leaders. And while friends were convinced that Brennan was still in love with him, it was clear then that his only emotional ties were to Apple. While the couple shared a shag-carpeted tract house together with Kottke that they dubbed “Rancho Suburbia,” Jobs spent much of his time up in the foothills at the cottage of Barbara Jasinski, who worked for Apple’s public-relations firm. Nonetheless, Brennan became pregnant, and Jobs later, infamously, denied his fatherhood even though Brennan and their daughter, Lisa, were subsisting on welfare. The county sued Steve—already a millionaire—for support.
The incident cost Jobs an honor he coveted: Time magazine’s editors had planned to make him their Man of the Year for 1982, but after Kottke talked about the episode with the magazine’s Silicon Valley correspondent, Michael Moritz, the editors chose instead to make the personal computer the Machine of the Year—and to follow the cover story with Moritz’s devastating exposé of Jobs’s dark side. From then until his final days, Jobs remained intensely guarded and controlling of media coverage of his private life. The code of silence spilled over to the professional realm as well, as he realized the value of secrecy in inspiring anticipation around new products. The media loved his story and his celebrity. By the end of his life, he would become one of the most-used magazine-cover subjects in the world.
After Joanne Simpson and Abdulfattah Jandali gave Steve up for adoption, they married and then kept their next child, Mona Simpson. Jobs was thrilled when he learned his sister was a novelist, a creative soul like himself. Simpson later published a novel, A Regular Guy, about a Jobs-like figure too busy to flush toilets (the opening line) and too narcissistic to be the caring man needed by his girlfriend, his young daughter, and his daughter’s mother.
Jobs’s personal life finally stabilized after his marriage to Laurene Powell, a Stanford Business School student. Powell arranged to invite him to speak on campus, then walked into the auditorium in the middle of his talk and sat in the center of the front row. He asked her out afterward.
Before long, Powell was pregnant, and Jobs, at 36, faced a similar situation to when he was 22. This time he married his partner, and Powell gave birth to Reed Paul in 1991.
He proved a doting father. Reed was followed by two daughters, Erin Sienna in 1995 and Eve in 1998, and the family lived in the kind of charming but reasonably scaled home more fit for tenured professors than for billionaire CEOs of the new gilded age.
Jobs always wanted to be known more as a visionary than a genius. In the ’80s, he and Bill Gates went out together on double dates, and the women they were with—Silicon Valley venture capitalists Ann Winblad and Heidi Roizen—realized that the two men each secretly envied the other’s reputation: Gates was heralded as a great businessman but wanted to be seen as a technical visionary; Jobs yearned for Gates’s reputation as a legendary businessman.
In Jobs’s first time around at Apple, business decisions were controlled not by the cofounder but rather by older, more experienced executives. Jobs could buy a Bösendorfer grand piano for his team of “pirates” creating the Macintosh, or he could fill the fridge with fresh fruit juices, but he couldn’t build a factory or launch a new computer on his own. So after he was kicked out of Apple, he longed to prove he could run great businesses on his own. After a full decade of failure, he learned from those experiences—and ultimately reemerged as the most admired businessperson of our age.
Within hours of the news of Jobs’s death on Oct. 5, in a carefully crafted statement from Apple, a global, unexpected outpouring of grief began. Over the days that followed, flowers, Post-it notes, and bitten apples would appear at Apple stores around the world, as well as at the company’s Cupertino headquarters and Jobs’s home. It would become one of the largest such displays since the death of Princess Diana, and the first of the digital era. At one point on the day after his death, a new tribute to Jobs was posted on Facebook every second.
What was absolutely true about Jobs, what lived up to the legend, was his charisma. He could be utterly charming and seductive to both men and women—flirting outrageously, transfixing them with his laserlike stare, capturing them with the infectious rhythms of his speech, conveying a heady sense of enthusiasm as he explained technology more lucidly than anyone else in the Valley could. Before Pixar’s executives went into meetings with Steve, they would agree to tug on their ears as a warning signal if they saw a colleague succumbing to his seductiveness, his infamous “reality-distortion field” that could make you believe just about anything.
For the past eight years Jobs had us convinced that cancer and its aftershocks were just other obstacles he would brilliantly overcome. After his first medical leave from Apple, he persuaded us he was just fine after the tumor was removed.
After the second medical leave, he reassured us again. The third medical leave was the last, and now even Steve can no longer pull off a comeback, though it’s still hard to believe that such an irrepressible force could ever be vanquished.