Everyone else has had so much to say about Steve Jobs in the last 12 hours that I can hardly contribute any genuinely new expressions of grief or appreciation to the mix. But in the interest of thinking different, I recalled something I’d seen a few months ago about Steve’s thinking.
On the day Jobs retired, Bloomberg had a phone interview with Steve Wozniak about the ideas that motivated the company, and Jobs in particular. Here’s a bit from about 8:50 in:
…And he did want to have a successful company, and he had a lot of ideas. He must’ve read some books that really were his guide in life, you know, and I think… Well, Atlas Shrugged might’ve been one of them that he mentioned back then.</blockquote>
Some will recall that Atlas Shrugged was made into a not-very-successful film this year, and on the movie’s website, a story citing the above interview was updated with a report from a Facebook thread from a viewer who saw Jobs attend the film on opening night:
Well, Ron - Mr. Jobs was at the same screening as I on opening night at Shoreline Theatres in Mtn. View a few months ago. I doubt he would have bothered to make it out to a busy opening night showing (especially as frail as he was) unless he was a fan of Atlas Shrugged.</blockquote>
Given the controversial nature of the book and its popular association with various stripes of conservative politics, this seems out of character for a man who’s more commonly known for his pursuit of eastern mysticism (Wikipedia’s bio lists him as Buddhist), alternative medicine (something of a raw nerve today), vegetarianism, and support for liberal political causes. These things don’t fit neatly with the commonly-held stereotype of Atlas Shrugged as the favorite book of the so-called Tea Party.
But assuming Wozniak’s memory serves him correctly, then maybe it does make perfect sense. Jobs could be the kind of person who sought enlightenment in all kinds of things, without preconceptions of where the truth might lie.
After all, have you read the book? The things I found missing from the movie were the human elements, the passions of the mind that motivate the characters’ actions. Seeing, for example, Hank Rearden having to sign away all his companies doesn’t really resonate if we haven’t experienced his mind racing through ideas, problems and their variables, possibilities and their implications, all in order to invent, to create, to build… and only then feel the unfairness of having that taken away.
Here’s a quote from Chapter VIII, in which railroad magnate Dagny Taggart and industrialist Hank Rearden experience the first running of her new line, built on his revolutionary and highly controversial “Rearden metal” :
Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?—she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and What for?”—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.
They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power—of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form. For an instant, it seemed to her that the motors were transparent and she was seeing the net of their nervous system. It was a net of connections, more intricate, more crucial than all of their wires and circuits: the rational connections made by that human mind that had fashioned any one part of them for the first time.
OK, is that about The John Galt Line, or the iPad 2? Continuing…
They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going—not the oil under the floor under her feet, the oil that would then become primeval ooze again—not the steel cylinders that would become stains of rust on the walls of caves of shivering savages—the power of a living mind—the power of thought and choice and purpose.</blockquote>
This reminds me of something I heard once in a talk, the point that all the raw materials that make up an iPod have existed on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. But we only got the iPod in 2001 because there were human minds here to make it, to combine those ingredients into this form, to build on generation after generation of learning and discovery to put these pieces together precisely this way. Indeed, a “moral code cast in steel”. Or, in the case of the iPhone 4S, glass and aluminum.
So while we talk about Jobs’ perfectionism and vision, let’s admire and emulate these other traits: the ability to find truth and wisdom in unforeseen places, the ability to square very different systems of belief and understanding, and the beauty of capturing purpose and elegance in a tangible, physical form.