A funny thing happened on Steve Jobs’ way to the grave

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs’ death from pancreatic cancer last week has highlighted for me two important lessons for life.

As any iPhone addict can tell you, Jobs was the co-founder, chairman of the board and CEO of Apple Inc.

I wrote briefly about the innovative entrepreneur’s wisdom in my Aug. 31 column. I had included him among four people who, in my opinion, understood the importance of embracing their mortality for making the best of their brief journey among the living.

For this week’s column, I’d like to return to that wisdom in more detail, basing my remarks on his now-legendary 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.

In that 15-minute speech, he spoke of a painful business betrayal and of his encounter with cancer.

Throughout my life I have been challenged by one of Jesus’ moral teachings, in particular: “Bless those who curse you.” This is never easy on a personal level, and on a corporate level, it’s almost unheard of.

Yet that’s exactly what Jobs did in response to betrayal.

Apple, the very company he co-founded in his parents’ garage and nurtured into its headline-grabbing status in the computer industry, had fired him in 1985 in a disagreement with its board of directors.

“What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone,” he told his Stanford audience, “and it was devastating.”

He didn’t wallow in self-pity, however. After licking his wounds, he went on to head up two other very successful companies, Pixar Animation, the motion picture studio responsible for Toy Story, and the education-friendly computer platform company, NeXT.

And this is where Jobs’ moral example really hit home with me. When Apple bought out NeXT in 1996, they wanted him to come along with the deal. This was a golden opportunity for him effectively to curse that company that had fired him a decade earlier and to turn his back on them as they had on him.

But, no. Instead, he rejoined Apple, soon becoming its CEO, a position he held till just this past August, when he stepped down for health reasons. And he wasn’t just any old company head, either. He built Apple Inc. into what, for a while this year, was the most valuable company in the whole world!

He blessed the very company that had cursed him, and in so doing, provided me a living example of how to follow Jesus’ teaching.

His response to terminal cancer was just as inspiring.

He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, he told the graduating class at Stanford, and it forced him to examine his priorities.

“No one wants to die,” he said. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

About his own response, he added: “Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment of failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

And the truly important thing for him was having the courage to follow one’s heart and intuition.

After all, “your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” he said. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

It’s been six years now since Jobs delivered that speech. Immediately upon learning of his death, I began reflecting once more on his wisdom on embracing life. One word came to mind: “authentic” – to be true to one’s self.

I’m sure, therefore, it was no accident that I received a penetrating article on authenticity the very next day.

It was the monthly newsletter from our Cochrane coffee companion, David Irvine, renowned motivational speaker/writer.

“Authenticity,” David wrote, “is about being more fully human and, in the process, becoming more fully spiritual. It is not developed overnight, nor is it maintained without conscious attention, diligence and a daily commitment to come back to ourselves in a world that tells us how we should be.

“The more we realize our human state and need for spiritual awakening, the more authentically human we become. This is the authentic journey. You can't fake real authenticity.”

Which brings me back to Steve Jobs. In addition to his example of blessing those who cursed him, there was a funny thing that happened on his way to the grave. In confronting dying, he embraced authentic living, changed his world, and invites the rest of us to do the same.

Thanks, Steve.


© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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