With bright pink walls, sloping floors, and $12 curry, Rasa restaurant is far from an upscale dining establishment. So when my husband and I spotted Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the London eatery with his wife and three of his children, we did a few double takes before determining the identity of our fellow patron. There aren't, after all, many billionaires who would patronize an earthy Indian restaurant on vacation.
Then again, Steve Jobs has never been a conformist. In his commencement address at Stanford University two years ago, the CEO of Apple urged graduates "not to waste [time] living someone else's life." He certainly hasn't: From a young age, Jobs pursued his iconoclastic interests—and in the process made a lasting mark on American consumer culture.
Four of his innovations have shaken up the computer, music, and entertainment industries. At Apple Computer, the company he co-founded in 1976 (now Apple Inc.), Jobs oversaw the design and production of the Apple II, the first mass-market personal computer. That triumph was followed by the Macintosh in 1984, a machine more aesthetic and user-friendly than his competitors had ever contemplated, much less produced. A little more than a decade later, Jobs's film production company, Pixar, unveiled the first computer-animated feature film. His most recent blockbuster product, the iPod, has now sold more than 110 million units, and fundamentally changed how we acquire and experience music.
For all of his victories, Jobs has also endured humiliating failures. His most public fall from grace came at the age of 30, when he was fired from Apple. His subsequent enterprise—NeXT computers—burned through millions of dollars without ever finding a consistent market for its computer workstations. In the early 1990s, some speculated that Jobs would be forever known as the cocky young man who scored an early victory with the Macintosh computer and then never fulfilled his promise.
The former wunderkind, of course, left that prognostication in the dust. After being forced out at Apple, he bought a special effects company from Star Wars creator George Lucas and nurtured it into Pixar, the world's first computer animation studio. Its films—which include The Incredibles and Finding Nemo—have nabbed 20 Academy Awards and grossed more than four billion at the box office. (Disney acquired the company in 2006; Jobs is now Disney's largest shareholder and sits on its board of directors.)
Jobs's most dramatic vindication, however, came a decade ago, when Apple purchased NeXT and appointed Jobs as interim CEO. At the time, Apple was bleeding cash and talent. Jobs restored the company to profitability in just one year—and the "interim" was dropped from his title. He has orchestrated Apple's renaissance with products like the iPod and iPhone.
In his Stanford address, Jobs credited his extraordinary track record in part to his allegiance to his inner sensibility. "You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever," he said. "This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
Gift of Persuasion. Steven Levy, author of The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness, amplifies that point. Jobs not only has an innate sense of what a superb consumer product can be, Levy says, but also inspires his teams to realize his vision. "Managers, or just people in general, can be either afraid or overly cautious. They figure that 'good enough' is enough," says Levy. "Steve isn't like that. He'll tell his team, 'I want it better.' And they'll get frustrated and curse him. But then they will make it better. It is the reason why products like the iPod have become synonymous with excellence. 'Good enough,'" Levy concludes, "is not a zone that Steve Jobs wants to play in."