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Thursday, October 6, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs, an Insanely Great Capitalist

Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2011 at 8:00 AM

1955-2011
  • 1955-2011

As I write this, many of my Facebook friends are expressing their profound sadness, and actually issuing "thanks" to Steve Jobs, who died on Wednesday. I'm feeling the same way.

It is astonishing that such sentiments can be felt, at this moment in history, about the CEO of any American corporation. But Jobs has been astonishing us for decades, and through his products and his legacy, he will continue doing so for decades to come.

What's more astonishing still is that Jobs can evoke such feelings despite the fact that he could be, well ... kind of a prick. That's another of his legacies. In recent decades, we've finally come to fully realize that even pricks can do great things, because we are all, to one degree or another, pricks.

It all comes down to why we are pricks. If it's for the right reasons, it can be excused, even applauded. But we should avoid being pricks like former Countrywide CEO, fraudmeister, and mortgage cheat Angelo Mozilo. Or sociopath Andrew Breitbart. Or Dick Cheney.

Wealth, fame, and power are shallow goals, pursued by shallow people. What Jobs taught us is that greatness should be the goal, and maybe those other things will follow and maybe they won't. He sometimes treated people terribly -- employees, corporate partners, even customers. By itself, his bad behavior wasn't laudable. But at least it was mainly in the interest of creating (or defending) great products. If your interest is in wealth, fame, or power for their own sake, few people outside your family will be posting weepy tributes to you on Facebook when you die.

Jobs wasn't an altruist (at least, not publicly). He was a profit-seeker. He was in it for himself, and he never pretended otherwise. But people who accused him of "commodifying our dissent" -- passing himself and Apple off as "revolutionary" purely for marketing purposes -- miss the point entirely, and they insult both Jobs and his customers. He didn't hang a pirate flag on the Apple HQ building and present his products to the public as world-changing and paradigm-smashing simply in order to sell more shiny baubles to gullible consumers. 

He did that because he really believed that his products were world-changing and paradigm-smashing (which they were, and are). He designed them that way, quite purposefully. He wasn't cynical about this, and he wasn't faking it. The cynics believe he was the cynic, and that all his customers were sheep he took advantage of. This is decidedly not the case. I don't know many Apple users who don't complain about this or that aspect of Apple products, or who think of Jobs as a god. We know what's good and what's bad about the products, and we make the rational decision that, in general, they're much better than what the competition comes up with. 

And most of us know that Jobs could be a prick. But I've followed his career closely almost from the beginning -- I can say without hesitation that when it came to his products and their effects on the world, he was 100 percent sincere. He meant the famous "1984" Mac commercial, and he meant it when he lured John Sculley away from Pepsico by asking him: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?"

Lots of pricks have been making fun of the Occupy Wall Street people. In doing so, they concocted what they thought might sound like a legitimate reason for their criticism (as opposed to just ridiculing hippies, which was their real aim): The lack on the part of the protesters of any specific "demands."

But they do have demands, even if those demands are somewhat amorphous and even if the protesters aren't so great at defining what they are demanding. Their demands are that we stop pursuing these shallow goals and, as a society, start pursuing something more meaningful. In general, the Occupy people aren't calling for an overthrow of the capitalist system; they're calling for the greedheads, the famewhores and the powermongers to be stripped of their outsized influence over our culture, our government, and our economy. They're calling on us to reshape our values. To have values. To care. The details of reforming, say, the financial system, the economy or the government would naturally follow from that.

Many of my Facebook friends who expressed profound grief over Jobs' death also have been expressing support for the Occupy demonstrations. It's really something to witness -- the depth of emotion all these left-wingers feel for the head of a giant American corporation. Jobs was one of the most successful capitalists of our time, and yet he's hailed as a hero by left and right alike. This is because his goal was simply to create products that were Insanely Great. In a world where few people -- particularly in business -- truly care about what they do, he truly cared. By thinking that way, he became Insanely Rich, and when he died, his company had an Insanely Large cash balance in the tens of billions of dollars. But few begrudged either Jobs or Apple for their wealth, because their priority wasn't to get rich -- it was to achieve Insane Greatness. Getting rich was a byproduct. That's how capitalism should work.

Imagine if Wall Street were to think that way: No bullshit mortgages aimed at fleecing the poor and the ignorant. No bullshit derivatives that do no good for anybody but those who profit from them. No asset bubbles that threaten to bring down the world economy. Bankers would put all their efforts into serving their customers the best they possibly could (as they once did). And they'd still be rich. You can apply this to any number of other American industries and institutions, so many of them so sick: media, retailing, manufacturing, education, government.

Jobs' pursuit of quality before wealth, fame, or power was rooted in his spiritual leanings, which were Buddhist (or at least those two things came from the same place.) In that tradition (as in other Eastern traditions), the root of all evil is fear. And fear is precisely why people pursue wealth, fame or power above anything else. Jobs knew where that fear was rooted, and why it was so harmful. He once said: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

So let's take Steve Jobs' greatest lesson to heart. We're all going to die, so let's go balls-out and try to create something great, or to care as deeply as we possibly can about what we do. It might be the only thing that can save us.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell

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