Ashton Kutcher summed up what many of us have been feeling in a short tweet this morning:
Now, I consider myself among the lucky ones for at least having met him (after his interview at D8, The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference last summer), and though our interaction was far from a substantive conversation, I still feel busted up. But, my non-tech/non-media network has been much more balanced in their feelings, and I understand where they’re coming from. As they’ve been putting it: They never met the man… they don’t know who he was as a person… he’s been sick for so long… For those of you wondering why there is such a public display of sadness, you’re not alone.
In fact, I felt similarly to you when Michael Jackson died and people were crying on the news. I just couldn’t get my head around it. Sure, I love Smooth Criminal (and Man in the Mirror, and Billy Jean, and Bad, and Beat It, and PYT, and…), but I wasn’t really moved by his death. So why the disparate reaction?
- Could it be that Michael Jackson didn’t have as profound an influence over his industry? He certainly did. The Kind of Pop spawned a whole new breed of showmanship and talent. So…
- Perhaps it was because so many other musicians have died in our lives? As a Dead Head at the time, holding tickets to an upcoming show, Jerry Garcia‘s death was upsetting because it meant I couldn’t see him perform anymore, but it wasn’t like this. And Kurt Cobain… the longer I listen to Nevermind and In Utero, the more I hear in the music and wish he had made more, but still…
- Maybe it was the shadow that some of Jackson’s actions in life may not have fit our understanding of normal behavior, but our society is too forgiving for that to be the only difference…
And that’s when it hit me.
Jobs is different because he showed us how great we could all be. He understood what we wanted not just out of products, but out of life. he isn’t unique in this respect, but he is extremely rare.
Steve Jobs made magic. Science Fiction is a popular genre in media because dreaming that awesome things that we know just *can’t* really exist could (maybe, some day, if we’re all good and work really hard) become reality, is just a wonderful feeling. Arthur C. Clarke, in his famous essay, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination,” proposed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Jobs lived to make this kind of magic. In his 2010 keynote address launching the iPad, Jobs referenced this famous quote, and the world realized he was right. We love and have personal connections to his products because they really are the stuff dreams are made of. He turned us into cyborgs. If you didn’t love it because it was so advanced, you loved it just for what it did. Either way, you were in love.
Steve Jobs was the underdog. We love underdogs. The Apple IIe and its progeny were ubiquitous in classrooms, but absent from board rooms. The closed ecosystem Apple had created compared to the Wintel open market seemed doomed the way almost all closed systems are. Apple pushed Jobs out and was on the brink of bankruptcy before it realized it needed him back. He then brought the company from death’s door to become the most valuable company in the world. Perhaps summed up best (again on twitter):
jwmoss Jonathan MossSteve Jobs was born out of wedlock, put up for adoption at birth, dropped out of college, then changed the world. What’s your excuse?
It was probably pretty clear that once Henry Ford had invented the assembly line, the world (beyond mere automobiles) would be different and that people had learned a new way of thinking, but he lived to the age of 83. Nothing against octogenarians, but given that this was 1947, an 83-year-old man wasn’t likely to continue to change the world. With Jobs, it is different. If he hadn’t been sick, what would have come next? I’m sure there are a few products in the pipeline (maybe even 20 years’ worth), but at the accelerating rate of innovation, what could Jobs have conceived of 10 years from now that we wouldn’t see in our hands until 2040? (And yes, maybe his illness drove him and we wouldn’t have all he gave us if he knew he’d live to old age…)
Putting these things together, Jobs didn’t just change the industry, he literally taught us how to think about what was possible. And he didn’t hide the fact that he was doing it. He told us to Think different.
In thinking different about consumer electronics and personal computing, Jobs gave us the tools to enjoy experiences more, remember them longer, and share them with friends. In thinking different about industry, supply chains, leadership, organizational structures, and nearly everything he had to rethink to bring us iPods, iPhones, iPads, Macbook Airs, and the rest, he reminded us never to take no for an answer. Even those of us who carry Android phones (and tout their superiority) recognize that our phones wouldn’t look or feel the way they do if Jobs hadn’t proven it was possible. These are all lessons we would have learned without him, but it is rare for one individual to teach these types of profound things to so many that have never met him. It is even more rare for that person to lead by example so we learn these things rather than simply state them for our consideration.
As someone aspiring to be a dreamer, a leader, an innovator, and user of the coolest gadgets, it is hard to see this generation’s apex of those things taken from us. Others have been talented, and maybe even more genius at what they did than Jobs. I take nothing away from them. But Jobs understood people and what motivated them to a degree that many great talents just miss. He understood us in a way that made us want to consume his products even while we scoffed at them in theory. It is how this understanding shaped our daily lives that we are now mourning. Our teacher is gone. Did we learn enough?