Friday, December 2, 2011

On Success, death and Steve Jobs

A friend's post on Facebook drew my attention to an article about the posthumous tribute-wave for Steve Jobs. For a quickie without following the conversation elsewhere, the article says 'Steve Jobs wasn't great, he wasn't even close' . Among other things, it draws a comparison in terms of greatness, to Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine and gave it free, deciding not to patent it. In other words, who is greater and, mummy, why is Steve Jobs getting all the attention ? I wouldn't have noticed if Ramnath didn't mention it, but after he did, I noticed that it was a 'sad essay, with weak arguments and too many fallacies'.

Great is a generic adjective that spans many fields. For example, a great musician, a great emperor, a great surgeon and so on. You cannot exactly compare greatness in one field with another and often, greatness in certain times, with other times.

In the field of, say, technology business, and in his times he was greater than many of his contemporaries. He did things differently. Many clicked, some didn't, some clicked later. He was thrown out of his company and staged a comeback and then staged a turnaround and rebuilt the fascination full circle. He might have been heavy-headed, but lot of creative/successful people are that. In the field that he chose as his passion, he manifested that passion into results that satisfied him and those he sought to impact. Such success was also acknowledged by others. That, in itself, is what only a small percentage, get to do.

He chose expensive style for his products, and was convinced there was a market for it. In all possibility he could have flopped, thats what the gurus would have got to say. But he defied tradition, the current market gyaan, and clicked, not once, but time and again. To have an intrinsic sense for a niche market, spot it and pursue it, entails the risk of stepping out of your comfort zone and being ready to sink in the process. You need to be grounded in your security with your own self, to be able to confront and conquer the insecurity in the world. It's the stuff true entrepreneurs are made of, or seek to be. We can't think like them and they can't think like us. They better not.

The article questions people's assumptions, success = greatness. But the article also assumes, charity > commerce. Coming from the charity bastion, I should have jumped to agree with the latter, but, sadly, not yet. Even if it were true, I guess we are too far away from that . Those beautiful times are yet to come. It requires our entire civilization, or huge parts of it, to think differently, on complexly intertwined issues: regarding our motivation, our money, our work ethic and our duty as a human on earth. And it will take lots of births for all of us to get there. Call it the critical mass for compassion or the escape velocity for enlightenment. Like in climate change, we have a reputation for refusing to learn until we get whacked thoroughly by Mamma Earth. Inner climate change is not going to be any simpler and Pappa God is going to have a tough time handling us. Hearts, take a lot more time to melt than glaciers. Questions like these are important to contemplate, but the answers need to be well-written.

Finally, think of the praises that arrived as like people attending a e-funeral. A life gone unnoticed or less noticed (say, Salk) is not any different from a life gone well-noticed, after it has gone, that is. In the former case, lives were impacted, sure, but most people may not have related to the individual, so they didn't write. In Steve's case, he too impacted and, it so happens, many people seem to relate to the individual, because the device was such. Interestingly, I noticed a billboard at the Kundarapalli Gate signal in Bangalore, a huge billboard ad by a real estate developer, saying just 'RIP Steve'. It's still an ad, but it shows people who used the devices fell head over heels for the brand. To connect two obituaries and compare their impact, would be like comparing the tears of two funerals, one with 10 people and another with 1000 people. Sorrow is the same for everyone. Death is a great equalizer in that sense.

Of course, great is different from good. To evaluate goodness is a larger call, you need to be able to evaluate the interplay of motives, constraints, values etc and in the light of the operating environment. Goodness is all-inclusive, includes personal life, relationships and even preservation of monuments :) :) , which Steve Jobs wasn't particular about . Greatness, on the other hand, is more explicit, can be segmented into streams, and therefore gets evaluated quickly and easily. You can't evaluate your goodness, because that'll be biased. Others can't, because they have incomplete information. Only God can, but He doesn't publish the papers. What to do ? :) :)

Yes, there was a good Steve and the bad Steve in the same person. Even in judgement, it's sad that someone with such business acumen, had to fall for a fatal over-belief in alternative medicine. People who praise the good Steve may choose to ignore the bad Steve. But, isn't it true that all of us suffer from the good-bad dichotomy ?

That is why the scriptural prayers say : Lead us from darkness to light, falsehood to truth. Lead us from proprietary software to open source. Trap us not into Apple, but deliver us from Microsoft. Give us our daily bread and butter, Facebook and Twitter. But don't lead us to immortality, it gets boring. Life without an end, will be like watching a terrible movie in a dirty theatre, all the time you are wondering, when will the movie end and the mosquitoes stop, and the lead jodi is still dancing around the trees and rolling on the hills , on the screen. Death, disease and dumping are part of the grand game. Sing a kolaveri song to release your stress, and move on to make your life colorful, cheerful and creative. Like a Mac.

Oops, for fair disclosure, like the author, even I don't own an Apple device or share. :) . And probably, that's why I am like this !


  1. Namaji, I thoroughly enjoyed this....keep them flowing...

  2. Fantastic, well written.

  3. Quotes of the this decade for me
    "Hearts, take a lot more time to melt than glaciers"
    "Trap us not into Apple, but deliver us from Microsoft"
    Only God can, but He doesn't publish the papers.

    Namaji - A gem. Pristine,original thought

  4. Namaji, well written and thoughtful. A couple of things though. Steve jobs, in pursuit of excellence needed him to be the way he was. In his first stint he was the take the people along kind of a person, in his second coming he choose to demand excellence and simplicity in the product design which bought out the Mac books and the iPods and the iPads. Imagine if he was not a bad Steve, perhaps we would have not seen these products and his second coming would have been like "other" CEOs.

    Another thought, I believe Steve kept his personal life and family completely out of the great stuff he created, as he says in his biography, he stayed in a suburb so that the riches would not spoil the mind of his kids and so that they would know him and his true self.

    Much may be said about the cut throat competitiveness of Steve jobs, but I guess in hind site great products are created with a dictatorial lead and a adherence to excellence.

  5. Nams...enjoyed every bit... gets better everytime!

  6. Nams, engrossing, educative :-), and entertaining. I am a chance user of an Apple device. I am grateful to Steve.

  7. Its all in the generation, Naams. Today, if a person does one thing differently or impacts positively, there is every possibility of getting media glare; publicity not only by media but also popularity by everyone sharing it freely on Social Networking Sites. Hence, people not being able to relate to Salk, is different from many people able to relate to Steve.

    Also, this relate-part may not be solely because of the devices which Steve created. Definitely curing polio is far superior (in health-set of terms) than creating a fancy gadget that makes one look ultra-posh & gives features that makes one a proud owner of a device, apart from making one feel that (s)he invented it, along with Steve that is! Polio vaccine is as much a life-saving 'thing' as is iPhone, when used appropriately. People could relate to Steve more because people were aware who created i-'things'. Till this post, I dint know that Salk is saving every single child in this world today, against polio. How big a impact is of Salk! Who knows, but for Salk we might have not had the creator of i-'things' long enough to create them and also others to live long enough to enjoy them & fully realize their value! Blame it on ignorance or lightening speed of information-share, a large visible section of world heard the words 'Steve Jobs' & that, in my opinion, created the impact.

    As rightly said, cant compare tears from two funerals. They are after all tears of mourning & are too heavy to weigh against each other. Both impacted lives, in their own way. Yet both deserve the respect, even without that.

    Overall, an awesome read Naams... Enjoyed every bit of it, thoroughly ... So many take-away one-liners :)

  8. Just for a moment, let's keep Salk aside.
    Replace Salk in the argument with either of Steve Wozniak or Jonathan Ive.
    Apples to Apples comparision (pun intended:-).

    How would the world react to one of their (GOd Forbid, but just for the sake of the point) passing away?

  9. @ all the praises : Thank you very much.

    @MI-info : Yup, thats the dichotomy. The ones that big people have happens to get discussed heavily, although most of us have it.

    @Rampy : True, but for the vaccine and other noble things, we won't be around to admire the i-Things. The news article, in part, seeks to question the gap between the haves and havenots of admiration. But, unlike you who did it right, it doesn't bring the networked visibility as a reason. It instead sought to sulk at his posthumous tributes reasoning that he dint accomplish much.

    Thoughtful comment, Rampy. A blog post by its own right. :)

    @CPC Sir : The reaction would have been much less. The reason lies in what one of the commenters said at my FB post on the same topic : Steve brought together the right blend of Design, Engineering and Management and hit if off with the market. And then his visibility because of this hit-off act. Companies who don't get this balance right are unlikely to succeed in the long run. And then there is the market vagaries, the uncertainty of failure. His orgn too had overtones, like the design guys having an upper hand etc, but the overall blend clicked. Like many others, I am not even sure Wozniak/Jonathan will do as good a job of pulling the blend, because, now that Granny is no more, we have to see if the house remains as united.


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THANK YOU: These reflections draw sometimes from readers and friends who initiate ideas, build up discussions, post comments and mention interesting links, some online and some over a cup of coffee or during a riverside walk. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog are the blogger's personal opinions and made in his individual capacity, sometimes have a story-type approach, mixing facts with imagination and should not be construed as arising from a professional position or a counselling intention.