It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of praising the accomplishments of Steve Jobs since his death. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to overstate his importance. His is the first face on technology’s Mount Rushmore. With a computer chip in hand, he was Jordan with the ball, Baryshnikov in flight, Da Vinci with a brush. His work epitomized perfection. But it wasn’t always that way. The path of success was strewn with failure. And it was out of the ashes of epic failure that Steve Jobs’ life took a turn toward the mythic.
But first, a bit of mythology.
In his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell describes the archetypal narrative that transforms an everyday man into a hero. Based on Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious — a shared storage of images and themes that transcends culture — the hero myth reflects a story of a man either being pulled out of his ordinary life or choosing to leave and begin a great journey, whose ending is unknown. During his mythic journey he encounters great difficulties but eventually understands what his purpose in life is. He is tested to his limits, what Campbell calls a “supreme ordeal,” and is forever changed. With his new powers and a renewed sense of purpose, he returns to his society and makes a tremendous impact.
I think it’s safe to say that the life of Steve Jobs clearly fits the structure of the hero myth. If we substitute the Apple Corporation for society, we have a near perfect fit. Let’s review a few key moments in the formation of his mythic narrative.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple and attempted to build an alternative to the PC world of Microsoft. Their first two computers, Apple I and II, did not initially sell very well. Later, Jobs developed the first computer with a graphical user interface, the Lisa, named after his daughter. It was way too costly and bombed. By that time former PepsiCo CEO John Sculley was in charge at Apple, and he fired Jobs because of the Lisa debacle. Our hero was banished from the kingdom. Having failed on a huge scale — the Lisa cost tens of millions of dollars to develop — he was now unemployed.
In order to prove he was still relevant in the computer world, Jobs started a new computer company, NeXT. Again, he failed. The NeXT computer barely sold. And worse, while he was gone, Apple had success with the Macintosh, which became the first successful computer with a graphical user interface. Jobs clearly was facing his “supreme ordeal.” You don’t fail twice on a stage this large and not a have a crisis of confidence. Jobs’ ego must have been teetering on the edge of an abyss. Yet, as the gods would have it, a series of events occurred which afforded him an opportunity for redemption. Apple began to falter, and they asked him back. The kingdom was in trouble and needed the old king to return and save the day. Jobs took back his throne. But it wasn’t immediate glory. Apple continued to flounder for a while, even needing to borrow $150 million from Bill Gates and Microsoft in 1997. Imagine how difficult that must have been to borrow money from Darth and the evil empire.
But then the magic started. First came the iMac and then the flood of handheld devices that catapulted Apple from death’s door to the most dominant technology company in the world. The hero’s journey was complete.
It’s easy to look at Steve Jobs and think only of success, especially if you were born after 1990. By the time you were a teenager Apple products had transformed the culture. They had so many successes that it felt like Motown during the 60s. Hit after hit. But if you look at his life just through the lens of the past 10 years, you miss the point completely. For it was the early years — the years of failure and suffering — which taught him how to sustain a vision and never give up.
So when you talk to your children about Steve Jobs and want to give them a gift — a bit of wisdom they can use when things don’t go as planned — tell them about Steve Jobs’ life, all of it. Tell them how the early Apple computers sold in the hundreds, not the millions. Tell them about the failures with Lisa and NeXT and that Apple was once a desperate company struggling to survive. Tell them that Jobs himself said these very same things at his 2005 commencement address at Stanford.
Then, and only then, can one understand and fully appreciate Steve Jobs’ accomplishments. Risk taking and resilience — the core characteristics of the mythic hero — allow success to emerge out of failure. Steve Jobs didn’t succeed in spite of his failures, he succeeded because of his failures.
Steve Jobs is the quintessential American hero.