Search the Site

Confessions of a Steve Jobs Fanboy

This is a cross-post from James Altucher‘s blog Altucher Confidential. His previous appearances on the Freakonomics blog can be found here.

Photo: segagman

I saw the news this morning when I looked at my iPad. Whenever I wake up, the first thing I do, before even going to the bathroom, is turn on the iPad and check the news. My heart sank when I saw the headline: Steve Jobs, dead at 56.
From my first Apple product (an Apple II+), to doing all my homework in college on the first Macintosh, to reading this news on my iPad, to typing this sentence on my Macbook Air, so much of my life has been influenced and changed by this man. Very sad day. My question for readers (please answer in the comments section) is: what was your first Apple product?
And now, here’s an essay I’ve written about Jobs:
I was standing right next to Steve Jobs in 1989, and felt completely inadequate. The guy was incredibly wealthy, good-looking: a nerd super-rockstar who had just convinced my school to buy a bunch of NeXT computers, which were in fact the best machines to program on at the time. I wanted to be him, badly. In fact, I’d wanted to be Steve jobs ever since I had the Apple II+ as a kid; ever since I shoplifted Ultima II, Castle Wolfenstein, and half a dozen other games that my friends and I would then rip from each other and pretend to be sick so we could stay home and play all day.
I don’t care about Apple stock. Though I do think it will be the first trillion-dollar company. Or about Jobs’ business successes and failures. That’s boring. The only thing that matters to me is how Steve Jobs became the greatest artist that ever lived. You only get to be an artist like that by turning everything in your life upside down, by making horrible, ugly mistakes, by doing things so differently that people will never be able to figure you out; by failing, cheating, lying, having everyone hate you, and coming out the other side with more wisdom than the rest. That’s how Steve Jobs did it.
So, 10 Unusual Things You May Not Know About Steve Jobs.
1)      Nature vs. Nurture. Jobs’ sister is the novelist Mona Simpson, but he didn’t know it until he was an adult. Her first novel, Anywhere but Here, was about her relationship with her parents. Which, ironically, were Steve Jobs’ parents too. But since Jobs was adopted (see below) they didn’t know they were brother-sister until the ’90s when he tracked her down. It’s proof (to an extent) of the nature vs. nurture argument. Two kids, without knowing they were brother and sister, both having a unique sensibility of life to become successful artists in completely different ways. And, to me it was great that I was a fan of both without realizing they were related.
2)      His father’s name is Abdulfattah Jandali. If you had to ask me what Steve Job’s father’s name was, I never would’ve guessed that Steve Jobs was biologically half Syrian Muslim. For some reason I thought he was Jewish. Maybe it’s because I wanted to be him, so I projected my own background onto him. His parents were two graduate students who weren’t sure if they were ready for a kid, and so put him up for adoption; and then a few years later had another kid, Mona.
The one requirement his biological parents had was that he be adopted by two college educated people. But the couple that adopted him lied at first and turned out not to be college educated. The adoption almost fell through until they promised to send Steve to college. A promise they couldn’t keep (see below). Despite layers of lies and broken promises, it all worked out in the end. People can save a lot of hassle by not having such high expectations and overly ambitious worries in the first place.
3)      He helped make the game Breakout. If there was one thing I loved almost as much as the games on the Apple II+ it was playing Breakout on my first-generation Atari. This obsession lasted through playing the game on every version of my Blackberry since 2000. If Steve Jobs had never done anything else, and I’d met him and he said, “I’m the guy who made Breakout,” I would’ve said, “You are the greatest genius of the past 100 years!” Funny how things turn out. Jobs went on from Atari to form Apple. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, went on to form the greatest restaurant chain in the history of mankind: Chuck E. Cheese. That’s right.
4)      He denied paternity on his first child, claiming he was sterile. The mother had to initially raise the kid using welfare checks. I have no judgment on this. Raising kids is hard. And when you have a kid you feel like this enormous energy and creativity you have for the world is going to get misdirected into a … little baby (Jobs’ parents must’ve felt that way as well. Like father, like son). But people change, mature, grow up. Eventually Jobs became a good father. And that’s what counts in the end. Much worse if it was the reverse. I didn’t know this either: that the Lisa computer (the “Apple III”) was named after this first child.
5)      He was a pescetarian. In other words, Jobs ate fish but no other meat. And he ate anything else a vegetarian ate (including eggs and dairy). Turns out if you compare pescetarians with regular meat-eaters, according to Livingreenonthedot, they have a 34% lower chance of dying of heart disease. And if you compare vegetarians with meat eaters, they only have a 20% lower chance of dying of heart disease. I think from now on I’m going to be a pescetarian, just because Steve Jobs was one.
6)      He didn’t give money to charity. And when he became Apple’s CEO, he stopped all of their philanthropic programs. He wanted to wait until they were profitable. Now, they are profitable, and sitting on $76 billion in cash, and still no corporate philanthropy. Nor a dividend. I actually think Jobs was probably one the most charitable guys on the planet. Rather than focus on which mosquitoes to kill in Africa (Bill Gates is already focusing on that), Jobs put his energy into massively improving quality of life with all of his inventions. People think that entrepreneurs have to some day “give back.” I disagree. They already gave at the office. Look at the entire iPod/Mac/iPhone/Pixar ecosystem and ask how many lives have benefited directly (because they’ve been hired) or indirectly (because they use the products to improve their life). As far as I know, Jobs never commented on his thoughts on charity. Good for him. As one CEO of a (currently) Fortune 10 company once told me when I had my hand out for a charitable website, “Screw charity!”
7)      He lied to Steve Wozniak. When they made Breakout for Atari, Wozniak and Jobs were going to split the pay 50-50. Atari gave Jobs $5000 to do the job. He told Wozniak he got $700 so Wozniak took home $350. Again, no judgment. Young people do selfish things. Show me someone who says he’s been honest from the day he was born and I’ll show you a liar. It’s by making mistakes, having fights, finding out where your real boundaries in life are, that allow you to truly know where the boundaries are.
8)      He was a Zen Buddhist. He even thought about joining a monastery and becoming a monk. His guru, a Zen monk, married him and his wife. When I was going through some of my hardest times, my only relief was sitting with a Zen group. Trying to quiet the mind to deal with the onrush of non-stop pain that was trying to invade there. The interesting thing about Jobs being a a Zen Buddhist is that most people would think that serious Buddhism and being one of the wealthiest people in the world come into conflict with each other. Isn’t Buddhism about non-attachment? Didn’t Buddha himself leave his riches and family behind?
It’s normal to pursue passions and outcomes, but just not to become overly attached to those outcomes. Being happy regardless of the outcome. A great story is the Zen master and his student walking by a river. A prostitute was there and needed to be carried over the river. The Zen master picked her up and carried her across the river and then put her down. Then the master and student kept walking. A few hours later the student was so agitated he finally had to ask, “Master, how could you touch and help that prostitute! That’s against what we believe in!” And the master said, “I left her by the river. Why are you still carrying her?”
9)      He didn’t go to college. I actually didn’t know this initially. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the famous college dropouts that I knew about. But apparently Steve Jobs went to Reed College for one semester and then dropped out. I guess you don’t need college to be successful. But you probably already know how I feel about that.
10)   Psychedelics. Steve Jobs used LSD at least once when he was younger. In fact, he said about the experience, it was “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” Apple’s slogan for many years was “Think Different.” Maybe using a drug which tore him from the normal frame of reference taught him how to look at problems from such a unique perspective. I don’t think LSD is for everyone, but when you combine it with the innate genius the man had, plus the many ups and downs that he experienced, plus the Zen Buddhism and all of the other things above, it’s quite possible that it aided his thinking process, and contributed to the many inventions he was able to produce.
Steve Jobs’ story is filled with nuance and ambiguity. People study him by looking at his straightforward business successes. Yes, he started Apple in a garage. Yes, he started Pixar and almost went broke with it. Yes, he started and sold NeXT and was fired as CEO of Apple. But none of that will ever explain the man behind the genius. None of that will explain all the products he invented that we use today. None of that will tell us about the iPad, Toy Story, the Mac Air, etc. A man’s successes can be truly understood only if we can count his tears.