Steve Jobs: Death of a salesman

He understood the genius within him, the same that lives in all of us, but he acted on his. How about you?

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Steve Jobs at an Apple Developers conference

He understood the genius within him, the same that lives in all of us, but he acted on his. How about you?

"I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."

--From “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

It is an odd contrast, perhaps. Steve Jobs was a great man. He did make a lot of money.  His name was and is in the paper. And cancer was a terrible thing that did happen to him; it cut short one of the most remarkable lives in human history. 

He is not going to his grave like an old dog.  Not when people from Cupertino to Shenzhen are pausing this week to remember this man who understood so very well the passion and romance that is the true heart of technology — and invited us to share his dream. 

But he and Willy Loman had some things in common: they were both salesmen (Jobs was far more than that, to be sure), both had dreams, and attention must be paid to both of them. While Jobs acted on his, and Willy didn’t, attention must still be paid.

I say this after having read hundreds of thousands of words and seen video after video over the last 24 hours in tribute to former Apple CEO Jobs, who died Wednesday (Oct. 5) of pancreatic cancer.  What is remarkable overall — even the profile of Jobs I watched on my iPad as the lead item on China’s English-language CCTV channel — is the tone of so many of those expressions: feelings not for some remote titan, some larger than life figure, but instead the feelings for someone terribly personal to many of us: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain. And now Steve Jobs.

Why is this so?  I think it’s because we see a piece of ourselves in each of them. We recognize, on some level, they acted on what they knew themselves to be: noble, flawed, human. I think we know intuitively they were just like us, but they had a certain grasp on who they were: an intuitive understanding that their genius, their uniqueness, lives in all of us, only they trusted themselves to act on it.  

People have been writing about how Jobs saw things we wanted before we even knew we wanted them. I think it worked the other way around.  Jobs saw things he wanted, and assumed with both wisdom and naïveté that others would too if they had them available. And then he went ahead and did it. Willy Loman couldn't do that.

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have best described Jobs in his seminal American essay on self-reliance: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius . . .  

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.

“It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Attention must be paid to Steve Jobs — and to the Willy Loman in all of us.


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