Seeking to Understand Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is gone, and the world seems a little emptier without his boundless energy, creativity and clarity. Over the last decade, no one has been a bigger inspiration and business role model to me than Mr. Jobs. I’ve devoted a lot of time and thought into trying to view the world through his eyes.

It’s an elusive challenge to understand, to define, to capture the essence of what, exactly, made Steve Jobs uniquely great.

Many years ago, Randy Ubillos (creator of Final Cut Pro and many other apps) told me this about working with Steve Jobs:

“He was great at keeping you focused on what’s important.”

This, I think, is a beautiful summation of greatness. Having the perspective and wisdom to prioritize and ascertain what’s critical and what isn’t was doubtless a major factor in Steve’s ability to catalyze the creation of revolutionary products.

And beyond product design or any individual business situation, Steve’s ability to focus on what was important in his life enabled him to not waste time, to accomplish amazing things, even in a career tragically cut short.

(Indeed, Steve’s passing itself reminded us to reflect on what’s important in our lives. So this quality has survived him.)

But while being aware of what’s important was key, what enabled him to do that? I knew there was something else, something deeper.

Last weekend, I was pondering this, and thinking about Steve’s search for truth: shaving his head, backpacking around India, dropping acid and his study of Buddhism, and that’s when I had a revelation.

There is a saying I made up once. It goes something like this:

“It takes a high degree of intelligence to discover elusive truths, subtle truths, hidden truths. But it takes pure genius to see the obvious.”

Though I can’t even claim myself to understand it completely, I think about it upon occasion and it just seems to ring true.

I think what made Steve unique is that he was able to see “the elephant in the room”. He was the boy who saw that the Emperor had no clothes. While others asked complex questions, Steve asked simple ones. I think he strove to hone in, and improve, his ability to clarify and simplify, to distill the essence of things, to see the things so obvious no one else could see them.

While I’m sure Steve could see what is important, I think this stemmed from his genius ability to simply see what is.

What is

Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, is a journey of becoming fully aware of reality. While most people sleepwalk through life, dreaming, occasionally someone wakes up, and sees “what is.” In Buddhism, this is called “satori”, or “enlightenment.”

When I ponder the impact the iPhone and iPad have made on the evolution of human computing tools, I can also start to grasp how obvious these concepts probably seemed to Steve. Of course, who would not want a little, portable, super thin, magical screen we could carry around that we could touch directly and served as a window to a world of resources? Anyone who’s watched “The Jetsons” knew that. It’s just that Steve found a way to bring that dream into reality. The first time I saw an iPhone, and the iPad, the word “duh” sprang to mind. It’s a simple, obvious concept. Of course. Of course that’s what a phone should be. Of course that’s what everyone wants. Now that someone has run the four minute mile, the whole world is trying to copy the iPhone and iPad’s design and success.


I have talked at length to people who had the opportunity to work with Steve Jobs, and I wish I were one of them. But though we never met, our paths did cross momentarily. Here are a few brief stories:

The first time I taught our DV Revolution digital filmmaking classes at Apple HQ in Cupertino, way back in 2000, I was walking to the main building at One Infinite Loop when I saw a black Mercedes with no license plates, parked at an angle across two parking places (including a handicapped spot), with one of the front wheels partially up on the sidewalk. It didn’t matter how many people worked on Apple campus, that could only be one person’s car. “Park Different.”

Another time, I was in the lobby when Steve got to work, wearing khaki shorts and sandals, and he walked right by me. Sometimes I wish I would have thought of something brilliant to say in that moment that might have engaged him and resulted in a conversation. But instead, he glanced at me for a moment, I assume, to see “if I was anybody.” (I wasn’t.)

But my most exciting contact with Mr. Jobs came a year or so later: We had been trying for months to convince the iMovie product manager at that time, Michael Uy, to help us promote an interactive CD-ROM we created called “Making Awesome iMovies”, without any success. After pretty much giving up trying to get Michael to return emails or calls, just for fun, we shipped a package to Apple HQ addressed directly to Steve Jobs.

About a week later, I returned to my office after a meeting to find Michael Uy had left 4 voice mails and sent 3 emails in the space of a couple hours. The messages indicated there was “strong executive interest” in our “Making Awesome iMovies” product.

Apparently Steve had looked at the CD packaging, summoned Michael, and asked “is this any good?” Michael had said yes, and Steve told him to bundle our product with every iBook and iMac Apple shipped.

Unfortunately, there was no compensation offered, so we declined, since our product was selling well and we would have lost out on substantial sales revenue. Looking back, I wish we would have said yes, the excitement of being “in the box” was probably worth more than money and could have led to other things.

Steve Jobs was the greatest inventor and innovator of our era. I’m happy he lived to see the huge success of the iPhone and iPad, and Apple’s value as a company exceed Dell’s, Microsoft’s, and finally, even the U.S. government, but I am sad he’s gone.

But, I’m sure over the last year or two, Steve was involved in the conception and design of a few new product categories somewhere in secret labs at Apple that of that we’ll see introduced in 2012 and perhaps beyond. I have faith that Steve has left us with just “One More Thing.”


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