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by Alexandra Starr, December 18, 2007
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."
Even Jobs's detractors allow that he is smart and charismatic. His annual presentations at the Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco are renowned for captivating an audience of 40,000 people. Still, his gift of persuasion is only part of the reason he's left an indelible mark on U.S. technology. Simply put, Jobs is extraordinarily driven, both in his goals and the lengths he will go to realize them. His early life offers hints as to why he is so determined to achieve, and build—rather than rest—on his success.
Born to unmarried graduate students in Wisconsin, Steve Jobs was adopted at birth by a California-based machinist and his wife. When he was in his 20s, Jobs reconnected with his biological mother and sister—the novelist Mona Simpson—but some of his friends have speculated that the entrepreneur was desperate to achieve renown in part because of his adoption. "At some deep level, there was an insecurity that he had to go out and prove himself," a college classmate of Jobs has said. "I think being an orphan drove Steve in ways that most of us can never understand."
Whether or not being put up for adoption fueled Jobs's determination, it is hard to see how he would have become a 20-year-old technology buff if he hadn't been raised in Silicon Valley, an environment rife with extraordinarily talented engineers. Jobs describes his father Paul as "a kind of genius with his hands." When Steve was a young boy, he joined his father at his workbench. He also apprenticed with neighbors who taught him the rudiments of electronics.
His Favorite Teacher. While Jobs managed to acquire a remarkable education outside of school, the classroom held little appeal for him. His enterprising mindset chafed at being told what to do and learn. By the third grade Jobs was notorious for setting off explosives in teachers' desks and setting snakes loose in class.
The following year, however, marked a turning point. His teacher, Mrs. Hill, sensed his innate intelligence and allowed Jobs to learn at his own pace. She had him complete workbooks apart from the rest of the class and gave him a kit to make his own camera. "I think I learned more academically in that one year than I learned in my life," Jobs said in an oral history interview with the Smithsonian Institution.
One downside to his scholastic blossoming, however, was that Jobs was promoted a grade, landing in a middle school in a marginal part of town. He was so miserable that at the age of 11, he told his parents that he would not return to the school. His mother and father acceded, sold their home, and moved.
It wasn't just with his parents that Jobs demonstrated a force of will unusual in a person his age. When he was a teenager, Jobs cold-called Bill Hewlett, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard; during the 20-minute conversation he ended up finagling a summer job at an HP assembly plant. He also became close friends with Steve Wozniak, another electronics fanatic, despite the fact that Wozniak, or Woz, was five years Jobs's senior.
His Favorite Class. When it came time to go to university, Jobs announced he would attend Reed College, a small liberal arts institution in Oregon. The private-school tuition was wiping out his working-class family's savings, however, and after six months, Jobs decided to drop out. He didn't pack his bags, though; Jobs remained on campus another year and a half, auditing classes.
One of his favorite subjects was calligraphy, not exactly a course that was going to improve his career prospects. Except, in an unforeseen way, it did: In his Stanford address, Jobs reflected that learning about serif and sans serif typefaces had a huge influence on the Mac. He wanted Apple's computer to reproduce the beautiful script he'd learned at Reed. Jobs's college course ultimately set the standard for desktop publishing.
After he left Reed for good, Jobs traveled to India in search of spiritual enlightenment, but the experience rekindled his interest in entrepreneurship, rather than convincing him to pursue monastic living. "I started to realize that maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and [Indian guru] Neem Karoli Baba put together," Jobs concluded, according to the book iCon.
Toughest Boss. Upon his return, Jobs embarked on his business career, founding Apple Computer with Woz. Jobs didn't own a suit, and the company's headquarters was his parents' garage. Nevertheless, his persistence and tenacity allowed him to build up Apple at a very rapid clip. As he met with potential investors in Silicon Valley, Jobs would often refuse to leave meetings until phone calls were made to people who could fund him or a check was placed in his hand.
As Apple grew, Jobs developed a reputation as a gifted—and difficult—administrator. His ability to push programming and design teams to create superior products in impossibly short time frames led to an unusual nickname: the "reality distortion field." Jobs didn't just cajole and inspire, but also harangued and occasionally abused underlings. In 1993, he nabbed a spot on Fortune magazine's list of toughest bosses ever.
Nevertheless, Apple scored major triumphs under Jobs's leadership, particularly the Apple II computer and the Macintosh. Jobs also spearheaded an effort to place a computer in every school in America. While that project did not pan out—the legislation that would have made it possible didn't pass the U.S. Senate—the company did manage to put 10,000 Apple computers in California schools. "It was one of the most incredible things I've ever done," Jobs reflected several years later.
Despite his triumphs, by the mid 1980s Apple was ailing. As a 20-something, Jobs had been considered too unseasoned to become CEO, so he recruited the top officer at Pepsi with a compelling pitch: "Do you want to sell sugar water your whole life or do you want to change the world?" John Sculley accepted the offer, but he and Jobs had a falling out, and in 1985, Jobs was forced out of the company he had founded.
Jobs subsequently described the experience as "devastating." One of his close friends drove to his home when he heard the news, out of fear that Jobs might kill himself. Still, the millions of dollars Jobs had acquired at Apple provided a springboard to stage a comeback. His public rehabilitation did not happen overnight: While technically brilliant, NeXT ended up being a business flop, and Pixar floundered for years. But the cash Jobs had pumped into the animation studio turned out to be a brilliant investment. When the company finally released Toy Story in 1995, it was hailed as a watershed. Pixar went public one week later, making Jobs billions of dollars. Soon afterward, he rejoined Apple and subsequently designed and ushered to market a string of blockbuster products.
Make a Dent in the Universe. The man who led Apple in the late 1990s was different from Jobs's early-20s, renegade-of-technology incarnation. During his 11-year absence from the company, he had married Stanford MBA student Laurene Powell, and they went on to have three children. Jobs also established a relationship with a daughter he had fathered at the age of 23 (he never married her mother, his high-school sweetheart). Parenthood, observers say, mellowed the intense business executive.
By Jobs's own account, a searing brush with mortality helped him reevaluate what was most important to him. Two years ago, when he was 50, Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His doctor told him he had a few months to live. A biopsy later determined that Jobs suffered from a rare strand of the disease, which can be cured with surgery. His wife told Jobs that the doctors wept when they realized her husband would survive.
"Your time is limited," Jobs counseled the Stanford graduates. "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." That sense of urgency has pervaded the entrepreneur's life. "Make a dent in the universe," Jobs used to urge his Apple teams. While that goad may exaggerate the impact a business can have, Apple has indisputably changed modern technology. The company's powerful yet simple and elegantly designed products have seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. Whether you are cropping a digital photograph or creating an invitation in Helvetica font, the Apple fingerprint is all over your computer, even if you don't own an iBook.
Jobs is tightlipped about what his next big product will be. One thing is certain: There will be another industry-changing innovation under Jobs's direction. This is a man, after all, who has made a life out of reaching for the next big idea—and the next.
Alexandra Starr writes from London for national magazines on education, culture, and immigration.
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