Steve Jobs in Three Acts

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Jobs’ life had three acts, but only the first and third involve Apple. The middle of his story is less well known to us. One Eugene resident got a tiny peek into the man, midway through his decade-long exile from Apple.

Jobs gave a Stanford University Commencement address in 2005. He shared three stories of his life that roughly track these three acts.

The first is about failure and the freedom it can bring. Jobs dropped out of Reed College and then audited only classes that interested him. (A commencement address that disavows matriculation. Educators shudder.) He learned calligraphy and its direct line to the human spirit.

Who could have guessed that elegance of typology would connect to his high school fascination with calculators and gadgetry? Indeed, without Steve Jobs, they might have remained unconnected.

Dropping out of college to start a computer company is not a unique failure story. Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg both dropped out of Harvard. But getting fired by that company that you founded, as Jobs was in 1985, was perhaps the most spectacular face-plant in modern business history.

A dozen years after that dramatic ouster, Jobs was invited back to Apple — first as an adviser, then a board member, then the company’s interim-CEO, and finally as the Center of the Apple Universe. Comparing the early Jobs with the latter (and now “late-”) Jobs can give your imagination whiplash.

From the “lost chapter” of Steve Jobs’ dramatic life.

We were first introduced to a man who could have been likened to an asteroid, darting across a dark sky, defying gravity and common sense, insisting that everything he touch be “insanely great” and occasionally pulling it off. He sported bow ties, a beguiling grin, and “irrational exuberance” before it had been debunked.

He returned to the company with much more mass, motivating others to be in constant motion, challenging them to orbit around him and his vision of the future. Colleagues, employees, and customers followed, ushering in a world of ipods for music, ipads for movies, and iphones for everything. That success will be well chronicled.

Jobs himself marked the day he changed. In early 2003, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctor told him “to get his affairs in order” and return later for additional tests. The biopsy that evening showed the cancer was curable, but he had spent the day pondering his imminent death. As he told the Stanford students: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

But what about the time between these two incarnations?

If Act One was failure and Act Three was death, Act Two was love. Love and death are not unrelated. Jobs described it this way: “I was in the parking lot with the key in the car, and I thought to myself, ‘If this is my last night on earth, would I rather spend it at a business meeting or with this woman?’ I ran across the parking lot, asked her if she’d have dinner with me. She said yes, we walked into town and we’ve been together ever since.”

Laurene Powell married Steve Jobs on March 18, 1991. They had three children together. Between the first and the second, they retreated (under a pseudonym) to a remote Hawaiian resort. No phones or television. Dinners were communal, as were the hot tubs.

It wasn’t until the third night of pleasant small talk that Eugene businessman Hugh Prichard pieced together whom he had been soaking with. He was able to thank the man for selling a machine that had helped him and Eugene Realtor Jean Tate avert economic calamity by plugging “what-if” scenarios into a spreadsheet on an Apple IIe.

Jobs listened to the story — surely he had heard hundreds just like it — and responded graciously. Looking back this week, what Prichard finds so remarkable is that there was nothing remarkable about it. He remembers vividly using VisiCalc to manage financial projections. He recalls all the painful business decisions that hindsight proved necessary. He remembers how his mind raced to appropriately thank the man responsible for joining hindsight to foresight. But he remembers almost nothing about the man himself: “Just a regular guy with a nice young family.”

Jobs insisted that well-designed technology should “just work.” It should be invisible to the end user. Ghandi famously said each of us should strive to be the change we want to see in the world.

Jobs this week has been the planet’s most visible human, but in that 1992 hot tub and for millions of people using simply strong digital devices that “just work,” he was and will remain invisible. Good for him.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. He counted how many Apple devices he has had since buying an Apple IIe in 1984: 24. He expects his new iPhone 4S to arrive tomorrow. This column was written on a MacBook Air.