What exactly is it that makes Steve Jobs death so profoundly sad?
A friend from Scotland called him the world's only real-life Willy Wonka who brought magic and life and colour to the world.
But it wasn't just that he was the Thomas Edison of our day, the creator of so many cool products. It wasn't just his innovative brilliance that inspired many in Silicon Valley, and around the world. No, I think a large part of the sadness comes from the fact that he died so young and we hardly knew him. We all knew his products intimately. But it's his personal story that is so intriguing and still largely unknown. I want to focus on his complex humanity in the making of Silicon Valley history.
Like millions around the world, I have never met him, never really knew him. And yet, living in Silicon Valley, I felt connected to him in many tenuous techy ways. Through familiarity and love of his innovations. Remember the crackle of excitement as you opened your first elegantly wrapped Apple product? The simplicity, the practicality of its use? I felt connected through my proximity to Cupertino, One Infinity Loop, the heart of Apple. Through friends who work at Apple. This summer I chatted with Bud Tribble, Apple's VP of Software Technology about Jobs's health and he told me, "Steve finds it hard to stay away..." He shook his head, looked down. I felt connected through Jobs's inspiring tenacity in the face of illness. He gave Apple his very last ounce of energy.
Just last week, I recorded a commentary for KQED radio, a piece I titled, "So you want to be the next Steve Jobs? No Shortcuts."
It was a tribute to this incredible man, the college dropout who defied the odds to succeed and invent and change the world. But my commentary was also a cautionary tale for Steve Jobs wannabes, who think his success can be replicated easily and can start with skipping college, just because Jobs did. People shouldn't underestimate his genius.
I was driving home through the rain yesterday when I learned the news from NPR's Laura Sydell, the last few words of an obituary "...they all have Jobs to thank for making it happen..." What? Can't be... not yet, not now. Here in Silicon Valley, we all knew it was coming, but the suddenness, the finality of the news was shocking. I pulled over and checked my iPhone... typing in "Steve Jobs," "death." There it was. Confirmed in the Washington Post.
Unexpected tears pricked my eyes.
At home, I scoured the TV news looking for something elusive, a connection. Nothing new there... talking heads and those endless slideshows of Jobs on stage, looking skeletal, gaunt. But turning to the Huffington Post Tech I found solace. By 7 pm, the main story on Steve had over 2000 comments and counting... flying in from Jobs fans all over the world. Skimming through the comments -- some banal and some insightful, these ones resonated with me...
"The world seems just a bit colder, as if someone blew out the pilot light that lit the fire under technology and modern life."
"I was 10 and in grade school when the library-aid wheeled the Apple II PC in on a cart, from that day on... my life was changed by you."
I regret I never had the chance to interview him. But I still want to learn more about his complex personal story, his humanity in the making of Silicon Valley history. The adoption, his Muslim father, his novelist sister, the Zen Buddism, the LSD, the lies, the philanthropy. A very private man, the best glimpse of his psyche is to be gleaned from rare interviews, and his famous commencement address to Stanford. Words to ponder, to marvel at, to shed a tear over:
You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
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.
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.
Follow Alison van Diggelen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/FreshDialogues