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Rev. Jim Ball Headshot

The Faithfulness of Steve Jobs

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When Apple founder Steve Jobs died not long ago many news accounts, obits, and reflections -- the smart ones, the good ones -- drew upon his 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University. Some even included video clips or links to his full address. (See full text and video here.)

These obits drew upon Jobs' Stanford address because: (1) he reflected upon death, including his own; (2) it contains remarkable stories about his life and the lessons he drew from them, and; (3) it is incredibly well-written and well-delivered. In other words, Jobs made writing about his life just as easy as using an iPhone.

A Commencement speech has to be one of the toughest speaking gigs there is, even worse than comedy. To paraphrase the old saying, dying is easy, commencement speeches are hard. I honestly can't think of a better Commencement speech than the one Jobs gave. He knocked it out of the park; a walk-off grand slam. (Could he sing and dance too? Jeez!) It is well worth watching and reading.

What struck me -- surprise, surprise -- was how many parallels there were to the Christian life, to the life Christians believe all are called to live.

From what I understand, Steve Jobs did not identify himself as a Christian. And yet his life as he described it and the lessons he learned and tried to live by are very much in keeping with the road Christians believe each of us should be traveling upon.

In his life there were many twists and turns, moments where glory could have been snuffed out. But three things appear to have marked out the life of Steve Jobs: faith, beauty, and love.

Here are some facts from his life.

He was adopted by working class parents who promised his biological mother they would send him to college.

He was a college drop-out.

He was fired.

He got cancer.

He died relatively young for this day and age.

And yet when he died, his company, Apple, was the most profitable company on the planet, in good measure because he was an adopted/fired/college-drop-out/cancer-survivor who ultimately died from the disease, one whose life was propelled forward by faith, beauty and love, especially as called out by challenges and adversity.

So let's review these twists and turns in his life.

First, he was adopted. His conception wasn't planned or wanted, obviously. His biological mother, an unwed grad student at the time, could have terminated her pregnancy -- but didn't, to the great benefit of so many of us. She wanted him to be adopted by college graduates, and the first couple lined up to take him were. But when he arrived as a boy, they rejected him because he wasn't a girl. So the adoption agency quickly called the couple who became his parents and asked if they wanted him and they gladly said yes. The only problem: they weren't college grads; indeed, the husband had not even graduated from high school. When his biological mother found out she refused to sign the adoption papers, and reluctantly relented only when his adoptive parents promised they would send him to college.

Not wanted at the time of his conception, rejected by those who were first lined up to adopt him, he came to working class parents who loved him. According to the Wikipedia article on Jobs, he was asked in 1995 what he hoped to pass on to his children, and he replied:

"Just to try to be as good a father to them as my father was to me. I think about that every day of my life."

Clara and Paul, his adoptive mom and dad, didn't know they were raising and loving and sacrificing for the Steve Jobs. He was, in effect, pot luck. He was simply the son they wanted desperately, the son they were willing to spend their life's savings on to fulfill their promise to send him to college.

Paul and Clara remind us once again that faithfulness is never a solitary endeavor. Someone is faithful to us first, faithful in love.

Jobs did begin college, but attended formally for only a short while. He didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, and he saw his parents' life savings disappearing to pay for a well-worn path to the unknown. While he didn't give up on his life's quixotic quest, he decided to find another way.

"I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK" (emphasis added).

He spent another 18 months informally sitting in on courses at Reed College.

"It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made ... 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."

He didn't have a dorm room, so he slept on the floor in friends' rooms. He bought food with money from returning soda bottles, and got his one good meal a week by walking 7 miles to the Hare Krishna temple. But what he learned during these seemingly aimless years enriched many of our lives.

"Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on."

As an example, he cites calligraphy. At that time Reed College had the best calligraphy courses in the country. Calligraphy certainly wasn't a class that Jobs would have taken if he was still a regular course-for-credit student with a Major. Freed from such constraints, in faith he stumbled his way into calligraphy.

"It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me."

And so faith, beauty, and love as expressed in the life of Steve Jobs resulted in your computer having beautiful typography.

Making things beautiful was one of the defining characteristics of his life. Such commitment to beauty included making things simple and elegant -- not only aesthetically but also in terms of their function and operation.

In a recently rediscovered video interview during the time between being fired from and coming back to Apple, Jobs reflected upon his belief that a major mistake of many business executives was "thinking that a really great idea is 90 percent of the work." Far from it.

"There's a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between a great idea and a great product... as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. You learn a lot about the subtleties of it. There are tradeoffs you have to make -- certain things you can't make electrons do, glass do, robots do, factories do. You have to keep 5,000 things in your brain -- these concepts -- fitting them all together... Ultimately it comes down to taste -- it comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best stuff humans have done, and then trying to bring those things in to what you're doing."

Jobs felt that part of the reason the Mac became such a great product.

"... was that the people who were working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists, historians who just happened to be the best computer scientists in the world. If not for computer science, they would be doing amazing things in other fields."

And so Apple's products are a result of creative craftsmanship driven forward by a love of beauty and elegance.

Jobs commitment to beauty not only came from his love of beauty in itself, but also because he loved what he did, loved it enough to fight to make it beautiful. In Jobs' case that turned out to be the personal computer, something he fell in love with at the age of 12.

After looking up Bill Hewlett in the phone book and cold-calling him, Jobs was given a part-time job at Hewlett-Packard, and along the way was able to tour HP's research lab. There he saw the first-ever desktop computer. Jobs recounts:

"It was as big as a suitcase, had a small cathode ray tube display, and I fell in love with it. I would get a ride up to HP [as a teenager] and hang around that machine and write programs for it."

One of the results of getting fired from Apple was that it reminded him that he still loved what he did. Being rejected didn't change what he fell in love with at age 12.

In her touching tribute to her brother at his funeral, Steve's sister Mona Simpson, herself a novelist, stated something she considered "incredibly simple but true":

"Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day."

In continuing his reflection on being fired, Jobs described the enmeshing of faith, love, our calling, and joy:

"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."

His sister remarked that

"Steve was like a girl in the amount of time he spent talking about love. Love was his supreme virtue, his god of gods. He tracked and worried about the romantic lives of the people working with him ... I remember when he phoned the day he met Laurene. 'There's this beautiful woman and she's really smart and she has this dog and I'm going to marry her' ... He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere."

And now to the final turn in life.

In his Stanford address Jobs reflects upon death, which he called "very likely the single best invention of Life" because it helps to focus us on faith, beauty, and love. Death reminds us that life is short. As such, Jobs urged the Stanford students to live their lives, not someone else's idea of what their life should be. And such a life should be filled with real love and beauty. We shouldn't settle for second best.

"Don't settle."

Rather, Jobs urged the graduates to

"... have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Being willing to trust that who you love and what you love to do, and the beauty that results, will lead you to become what you were meant to be, is summed up by Jobs in a quotation from the back cover of the final edition of The Whole Earth Catalog:

"Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

As Jobs said, "I have always wished that for myself."

We are all created to glorify God by being whom He created us to be. By all accounts Steve Jobs never stopped becoming himself. Perfect, no. Glorious, yes. In his final words, as recounted by his sister: "OH WOW, OH WOW, OH WOW."

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