While there are many things worth celebrating of Steve Jobs’ life, the greatest gift Steve gave us is a way to design our own lives.
Steve Jobs was known for being a design god who sweated experience, and pixels and, well, everything. “Design,” he once said, “is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s how it really works. You have to grok what it is all about.”
In our society, thinking for ourselves is not highly valued. Our education model was designed with the 19th century more than the 21st century in mind. It reinforces fitting in and suppresses much of the natural creativity we start with. That’s how we go from drawing and acting and make-believe to PowerPoint. If we allow creativity at all, it is limited to arts and sports. “Real work” has us looking like a Dilbert character. Between the pressures of our teachers, parents, and ultimately co-workers, we often give up any search for personal meaning as we aim to belong to a tribe. After a while, we may not even believe we have something unique to offer. Rather than figure out what we are each about, far too many of us live within the boxes others define.
But when we define ourselves by what others want, we are trying to kiss a moving butt. To live in a box defined by someone else is to deny our uniqueness. Each of us is standing in a spot no one else occupies. That unique perspective is born of our accumulated experience, perspective and skills, and our vision. When we deny these things, we deny that which only we can bring to the situation, our onlyness. And that is surely not the way the world is made better.
I’m reminded of the ad copy Steve initiated when he returned to Apple:
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. (Apple Inc.)
The problem with being a rebel, a misfit, a troublemaker is that the masses will not be cheering you on. Rosa Parks might be a heroine today, but at the time, she lost her job. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr both had huge dissension within their own communities. It took Jobs years to come up with a turnaround strategy that showed what Apple could do. People forget the years between 1996-2001 where much of the market called him more insane, than insanely great.
But he knew that his journey was to apply what only he could — from his meticulous design methodology, to reimagining computing, to building a different type of company. He realized — and showed us — that our real job is not to conform to what others think. Instead, we need to recognize that our life’s goal is to find our own unique way in the world, to find the way that we move from being kiss-ass to being kick-ass.
That is the fundamental gift of Steve Jobs. His insane greatness was to find his own journey and to live his life this way. He didn’t worry about being weird; he only wanted to be himself.
I have been in love with Apple products since my first Apple II, which I practically bought with quarters and nickels earned in small increments. I grew up picking apricots on the property where Apple buildings now stand. I worked at Apple during the “dark days,” as alumni refer to the years between Steve Jobs’ departure and then his much-needed return. He was competitive, sure, but mostly against himself. And that, too, is a lesson for us. It has been an honor to use his products, and it was an honor to work at his company. But the greatest honor has been to emulate what he showed us by his life. That each of us must find our own path. The unmarked path.
So I ask you to join me in honoring Steve’s greatness not by trying to be Steve, but by trying to be your greatest self.
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