I’ve been thinking about Steve Jobs a lot lately.
In part because I got my first Mac in 1987 so I guess it’s fair to call me an early adopter.
In part because you would have had to have spent the last month in a cave to have not heard Jobs compared to Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Sam Walton.
And in part because my geeky son suggested that we watch Jobs’s Stanford University commencement address in its entirety. All I can say is that I hope someone will turn the 15-minute speech into a book, a la Anna Quindlen’s “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” I would shove it into the hand of every conflicted teenager I have ever met, as well as their parents.
While listening, it occurred to me that there are parenting lessons that we can learn from Jobs and Apple.
I have no idea whether Jobs was a good parent. He fathered four children, including one out of wedlock for whom he did not provide support for a period of her life. I suspect, like most of us, he was never certain if he was a good parent.
But he apparently relished it. Jobs said of having kids, “It’s 10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done.”
So, what can Jobs teach us about the most complex human interactions?
He never quite succeeded in eliminating them from Apple products; even the newest iPad has one button. But his notion that pushing buttons adds unnecessary complexity to life poses an interesting challenge for parents. Kids live to push our buttons. Whether they’re 2, 12 or 22, they know their parents’ weaknesses, they stick out their fingers and press hard. But consider the sleekness and simplicity of a near-buttonless iPhone and imagine if your children had no buttons to push. Imagine if “I can’t find my shoes” didn’t push the button marked “lecture on responsibility.” Or the grocery store tantrum didn’t push the “buy the candy so we can get out of here” button.
Easy? No way. But that was part of Jobs’s brilliance, he reduced complex equations to their simplest form. Just as Jobs couldn’t rid his technology entirely of buttons, you won’t be able to rid your parenting of all buttons. But keep in mind that buttons only mar a deeper beauty the next time you’re faced with feet-stomping or eye-rolling.
In the Stanford address, Jobs talks at length about, of all things, calligraphy. After dropping out of Reed College, he continued to hang out there auditing classes, including one about typography. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating,” he said in that 2005 speech.
It is perhaps ironic that the man responsible for a generation that goes around wearing earbuds so that the chirp of a bird or the rustle of a leaf has no hope of penetrating was so singularly moved by the beauty of how letters interact.
That exposure to beauty shaped his life.
“Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.” Nothing happens in a vacuum, he seems to be saying. And we can never know the transformational moment when we’re living it. Only in hindsight.
A child awed by a full moon on a crisp autumn night may two decades later discover an asteroid.
A child who is read the classics as a child may hear the phrases of Baum, Seuss and DiCamillo echoing in her head as she creates classics of her own.
A child gazing upon van Gogh’s sunflowers may be moved to create wondrous fields of color all his own.
He dropped out of college and was fired from the company he founded. Imagine the anguish his parents must have felt. In retrospect, it seems laughable, but you can imagine his mom and dad losing sleep wondering: Will Steve ever amount to anything?
But they didn’t protect him from his failures. I’m sure they were supportive, but they didn’t stop him from stumbling, as so many of us want to do today. A taste of failure in the first half of his life shaped what Jobs did in the second half of it.
“I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me. I still loved what I did. . . . And so I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”
A poor test grade, a college rejection, a young love gone awry. If Jobs showed us anything, it’s that being there to wipe away the tears may be a far more important parental role than preventing the heartache in the first place.
Arrogance is a word often associated with Jobs. Perhaps few figures of our time had more reason to embrace the word than he. But in the Stanford speech, his arrogance seems to come more from the heart than the head. It is also offers the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard:
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”