Hello there. I’ve had a lot to think about lately. Mind if I tell you a story?
Back when I was a kid, I didn’t exactly have a ton of friends. I tend to think that I got picked on more often than others, and I got used to it in a way. But there were a couple of specific bullying events that really stand out to me for one reason or another.
In junior high school, there was a kid in my class named Brian. He and I were not friends, but we weren’t enemies either. We just didn’t interact, and that was fine. He was a fairly popular guy though, and a number of my classmates liked him.
I was in the Boy Scouts at the time, and a few other guys from my class were in the same troop. We had a tradition of going to a specific Boy Scout camp every summer for a week, and while we were there the summer after 8th grade, we bumped into Brian. He apparently belonged to another troop in town, and they coincidentally were at camp the same week as us. He ended up tagging along with my troop for much of the week, since we hadn’t seen him in a year.
I can’t remember the details of it, but at some point during the trip he picked a fight with me. I don’t remember what it was about, or what he said exactly, but I remember it being unprovoked, nasty, and involving a lot of pushing and shoving. I avoided him the rest of the week and was glad when we went home.
During the rest of the summer I developed a mild hatred of him. His bullying confused me greatly — not necessarily the harshness of it (I’d dealt with much worse), but because I had done nothing to provoke it. One minute I didn’t exist to him, and the next, his targeting sights were locked on me.
Freshman year of high school started, and I was relieved to learn that he had opted to attend one of the local public high schools, rather than the private school I and most of my class had continued on to. This meant I didn’t have to worry about further bullying from him, or avoiding him, or, really, ever having to see him again (by midyear I had stopped attending Boy Scout meets out of a lack of interest). I didn’t stop being an unpopular dork, but at least I only had to worry about dealing with any potential crap from upperclassmen.
Time went on and I largely forgot about it. Freshman year became sophomore year. One evening, after my dad had picked me up from watching a college hockey game, he mentioned that he had just learned that an old classmate of mine had killed himself. “Did you know this Brian guy very well?” he asked.
I paused. “No,” I said. “We didn’t really talk.”
I had frozen. My mind raced back to the bullying incident, and I remembered how upset and angry at him I had been. The next day at school, all my classmates were in tears; they had lost a good friend to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They couldn’t make sense of it, why would he do that?
I couldn’t make sense of it either. I was trapped in an impasse between my emotions. The guy had treated me badly, for no obvious reason, and I was angry about that. Yet I felt sorry for him too, because I realized that he must have felt much worse about whatever was bothering him.
My classmates had a clear path forward: grieve for their lost friend. I became ever the more mired in a circle of confusion. Not helping was the fact that a month or so prior, my aunt had died from cancer (which in and of itself is another story, but added a few pounds to my mental baggage). My school made arrangements for my class to attend the funeral a few days later. I managed to catch the principal a few hours before everyone was to board the bus to the church and asked if I could stay behind at school. I told him I didn’t really want to attend two funerals in a month, citing what had happened with my aunt. No problem, he said, it was understandable. I could stay in the school library and catch up on homework.
What I had told him was a lie. My aunt really had died, but I didn’t attend the funeral as it was in Texas (my father drove down by himself). I simply couldn’t bring myself to go to Brian’s funeral. I was still too confused and would have felt too out of place. I wasn’t able to open up to the principal, or anyone else for that matter, as I wasn’t sure I would have been able to adequately express what a jumbled mess my mind was at the time.
I faced the same confusion again after having heard that Steve Jobs died.
I had never been a fan of Jobs. He seemed too arrogant to me, too self-centered. It seemed like he always tried to take the credit for others’ ideas, that he alone had “invented” products when all he really did was turn loose Apple’s engineering teams on inferior products with the task of making them much better. He was certainly a great businessman, but not necessarily a great human being (especially in light of reports that he tended to throw temper tantrums and was, at times, downright nasty to employees). I didn’t outright hate Jobs, but I often wished that Apple wasn’t run by such a narcissist.
It was when he stepped down as CEO in August that I really began to see the human side of him. His battle with cancer was public knowledge, and everyone knew that, eventually, someone would succeed him. I wasn’t surprised that Tim Cook became CEO when he did, and I suspect that not many others were surprised either. Jobs just couldn’t juggle both the day-to-day of running a company and trying to stay alive.
On Wednesday when I read that he had died, in my mind he became less of a micromanaging perfectionist, and more of a very, very ill man who did everything he could to hang on to what he believed in. Suddenly he had a family and kids, had hung out with his neighbors, was a Buddhist. Until that point I had only known him as the smug guy who would go onstage and unveil products that I wanted to buy. Now I began to see him more completely, that there was genuine passion and good intent behind what he did (even when it was unpopular). I began to suspect that maybe those temper tantrums weren’t because he was a bully, but because he felt frustrated that nobody else understood him.
I began to realize that maybe I was not so dissimilar from him after all.
I’ve largely settled my confusion about Jobs. Obituary after obituary offers more insight into his human side with every little anecdote that the authors offer. Product reviewers, neighbors, and even Brian Lam, the editor from Gizmodo who ran the story about the stolen iPhone prototype (which I ranted about over a year ago) all explain that, above else, Jobs was not the jerk I had surmised him to be. Yes, he could be a jerk at times, but so can I. What Jobs was, instead, was driven. He knew how he wanted things — the world, even — to work, and did what he needed to make that happen.
I’ve been trying to work through my own issues as of late; career aspirations, personal goals, large-scale dreams. In piecing together Jobs’ life, I’m starting to figure out my own. I need to work harder to get what I want and not succumb to apathy or self-devaluation. I want to be more than an office drone; not necessarily famous, but content that I’ve made a difference in some way. That I didn’t just go through the motions but actually made people’s lives better.
And I think, at its core, that’s what Apple is all about. It’s not about building trendy, snazzy products that are used as status symbols, but rather a set of intuitive tools. Tools that don’t just make one’s life better, but empower one to make others’ lives better. This is why Apple products have been so involved in education, science and the arts. Windows is for businesses, but businesses don’t make people’s lives better, they just make them more money.
It’s probably a good thing that I like to think I bleed six colors. With what I want to do with my life, I could use all the help I can get.
Thank you, Steve.