BY PETER SCHEER–Steve Jobs died at age 56, a young man. But one of the things that stands out about him is the longevity of his superstardom. Jimmy Carter was president when Jobs first appeared on the scene as the bearded personification of high-tech cool. From the early Apple PCs to the launch of the Mac, his involvement in Pixar, his return to a humbled Apple and its reinvention as a dominant force in the media world (iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad), Jobs spent more than 30 years at the very top of his game.
It’s as though the Beatles, instead of breaking up in 1969, had kept on writing and recording and performing new songs at the same level of creative intensity and productivity for three decades. Interestingly, one of the few people who comes to mind as possibly rivaling Jobs in this regard is his career-long nemesis, Bill Gates. That they were both children of California culture in the 60s and 70s is not a coincidence.
. . . I first realized Steve Jobs was not merely lucky, but a true—and uniquely American—genius when, with several small children in tow, I saw the first Toy Story movie in 1995. Jobs’ launch of Apple was impressive, to be sure, but Apple in the late 80s and early 90s was not so clearly superior in its technology or vision to the legions of other startups making first-generation personal computers.
Then came Pixar, which Jobs bought when the company had zero revenues (and lots of human capital). Its first full-length computer-animated film was so good-and such a leap, in every possible way, from everything that had come before, that there was no escaping that Jobs was a truly gifted corporate leader. With Pixar, lightning had struck a second time for Steve Jobs. It would strike for him again and again and again.
. . . The lionizing of Steve Jobs, one of the world’s richest men, is in sharp contrast to the political sport of thrashing America’s super-rich: CEOs, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, venture capitalists (and most of the residents of Manhattan’s upper east side). As Jobs lay dying, New York’s “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations drew ever bigger crowds of participants and onlookers.
Jobs’ stature reflects America’s ambivalence about personal wealth. Jobs is spared the groundswell of populist anger because he is seen as deserving his fortune (over $6 billion based on his stock holdings alone). He is classed not with corporate chieftains and financiers for this purpose, but with professional athletes and Nobel Prize winners. Jobs’ oversized compensation is viewed as the just reward for a personal talent so great and so rare it is like a national asset.
Jobs’ winning streak at Apple, particularly during the last decade, was so stunning and consistent that only fools and masochists bet against him. And for a while it even appeared that, against all odds, Jobs had managed to beat a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
. . . Steve Jobs had the truly bizarre experience of reading his own obituaries—the first wave of obituaries that were published in August, following his resignation as Apple CEO. I think he would have been struck by the outpouring of tributes and affection: their volume and depth reflected more than just his importance in the business world or the history of computers.
Jobs would have seen that he had connected in some fundamental way with his customers who, by the millions, not only had opened their wallets to buy Apple’s cool, lifestyle-defining products, but also identified with Jobs’ personal narrative: the college dropout who followed his dream from his parents’ garage to the top of the Fortune 500, all the while staying true to some inner compass wired to a uniquely California culture prizing, above all else, intuition, creativity, community and risk-taking.
Not a bad legacy. Not bad at all.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of FAC. This article, which also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post, reflects his views only, not those of the FAC Board of Directors.