Thanks for the Future

By Deutschman, Alan | Newsweek, October 10, 2011 | Go to article overview

Thanks for the Future

Deutschman, Alan, Newsweek

How a college dropout trusted his gut, defied corporate America, and carried us into tomorrow.

New York City, March 20, 1983: Steve Jobs is gazing at ancient Greek sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as he spends the day with John Sculley, the head of Pepsi and the man he has been trying for months to lure from the East Coast to become his partner in running Apple. They leave the museum, walk through Central Park, and head to the San Remo apartment house, Jobs's future New York home. As they stand on the western balcony, peering across the Hudson River, Jobs pauses dramatically before delivering one of the most seductive recruiting pitches in history:

"Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?"

That sentence would become one of Jobs's most famous formulations, along with "insanely great" and "think different." The basis of its power, the reason it was such an irresistible pitch, was this: Steve Jobs, then only 28 years old, had already changed the world, and would go on, over the next quarter century, to change it again and again.

While Jobs surely ranks as one of the most important figures in business and technology, he's also one of the most influential cultural figures of our time, the motivating force behind the idea that business and work can be primary sources of creativity, fulfillment, and meaning in our lives; the belief that companies can foment cultural change; the notion that engineers and executives can think like artists; and the realization that good design and aesthetics matter in one of the world's most cutthroat industries.

Jobs's relentless pursuit of perfection was also a key part of his legend. In 1977, when Apple's first corporate headquarters was in the same building as a regional sales office for Sony, he would stop by and ogle Sony's marketing materials, admiring the graphics and logos, noticing the weight of the paper stock. For one of his public presentations, Jobs scrutinized 37 different color variations before picking the background for his projector slides.

The perfectionism extended to his home life as well: the first two houses he owned, in Los Gatos and Woodside, Calif., remained nearly empty for years because he couldn't find the perfect furnishings.

And rather than relying on market research or focus groups for guidance, Jobs followed his own gut about product design. When he was creating the iMac, which combined a monitor and computer in the same casing, industry research said consumers wouldn't buy this kind of so-called all-in-one design. But Jobs wasn't deterred, telling a colleague, "I know what I want and I know what they want."

He, of course, was right. And that sense of leading public tastes, rather than following them, is as important as anything else in Jobs's genius. Perhaps equally astonishing is just how close he came to failing entirely.

Sculley, who succumbed to that balcony pitch and joined Apple as CEO, soured on Jobs only two years later, forcing him out of the company that Jobs saw as an extension of himself. Betrayed by the man he felt closest to in the world, Jobs seemed so depressed that one of his longtime friends, Apple executive Mike Murray, feared he was suicidal.

Jobs considered any number of randomly different paths, from expatriating to France to staying home at his huge, unfurnished old mansion in Woodside and cultivating his garden. Ultimately, his escapist fantasies were just that, and instead he persisted--tenaciously, resiliently--on the path he had begun following at 21. For most of the next decade he struggled as his two new companies, NeXT and Pixar, were so financially ruinous that he came close to blowing the entire $100 million fortune he had amassed from selling Apple stock.

But he didn't give up, and his astonishing comeback and eventual triumph are as much a part of the Jobs legacy as the iPads and iPhones and Macs that have shaped our daily lives. …

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