Steve Jobs: an uncommon hero

Appropriately, the news of Steve Job’s death popped-up on my iPad at bedtime, or about 10:30 PM. Instead of falling asleep, I tapped my news applications for details. Already, tributes were pouring-in from all over the world, perhaps the most eloquent from President Obama.

I became an Apple devotee in 2007 after years of discarded PCs, each generally down to a crawl after about three years, always under virus threat, at times confusing in their set-up and operation. In contrast, I’m typing on the same Macbook Pro laptop bought nearly five years ago, never a hiccup along the way, a little outdated in some of its features, but otherwise fully adequate for my needs. I paid more, but have outpaced that investment with its longevity. It’s like choosing a Lexus over a Corolla. Macs work the way all computers should.

Like many of you, I’ve branched out to other devices: iPod, iPhone, and last year, my favorite, the iPad. The latter has revolutionized my electronic life, virtually replacing even my laptop, except for productivity needs. Games, music, news, books, you name it, I have it all: ease embedded in quality.

Steve’s life amazes me. I’m talking biography rather than tech savvy. I hadn’t known he’d been put-up for adoption by his biological mother and was ultimately raised by working class parents, or that he had only one semester of college. Jobs had a taste for following the road less travelled, or this pluck most of us lack, the courage to seek the right fit, the fortitude to prevail. I’ve also learned he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He could be difficult, but he always played the hunch and followed his intuition.

Many rank him with Edison and Einstein in the impact of his genius. Actually, he was less inventor, much more innovator. He had a nose for good ideas that could be made better and surrounded himself with those who could materialize his vision. I understand this kind of creativity well. Writers like Vergil and Joyce could translate the extant into the revolutionary. Collectively, the Romans and contemporary Japanese are like this. Perhaps his greatest legacy, like that of all good teachers, was an ability to simplify the difficult. Apple devices exceed not only in their efficiency, but their ease.

I hadn’t known he ventured to India and returned a Buddhist devotee. His desire in life wasn’t to make money, but to live meaningfully. Simplicity characterized not only his products, but his life.

Brave beyond brave, and against all odds, he broke through not only economic and social barriers, but those posed by pancreatic cancer and its nearly always fatal consequence. Each new day he lived with hope.

Despite his outer success, he was in some ways “born under an unlucky star,” as the poet Keats might have put it. After all, 56-years is not a long-life. Paradoxically, he was also one of the luckiest of mortals. Most of us live longer, but not as well. Steve Jobs’s life, on the other hand, is the stuff of legends.

In 2005, Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. In its wisdom and simple eloquence, its somber simplicity and earthly truths, the address affirms an uncommon realism of counting one’s days. Available online, it deserves a full-reading. In his honor, here are some of his final words to that youthful audience of just 6-years ago:

My third story is about death. When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctors’ code for “prepare to die.” It means to try and tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next ten years to tell them, in just a few months. It means to make sure that everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope, the doctor started crying, because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and, thankfully, I am fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept. No one wants to die, even people who want to go to Heaven don’t want to die to get there, and yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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