To understand the cultural significance of Steve Jobs, you have to go back in time: to before the iPad or iPhone or iTunes, before Apple Inc.’s comeback products made candy-colored plastics and iAnything cool, before Jobs got kicked out of Apple, even before the Macintosh hurled a sledgehammer at Big Brother.
It’s 1981. Most people have never heard of Silicon Valley. The country’s most famous businessman is Lee Iacocca, the head of Chrysler Corp. He’s famous because in 1979 he engineered a government bailout -- loan guarantees -- that saved the company. He’s also famous because, unlike his peers, Iacocca is colorful. He seems to believe in what he’s doing.
In 1981, business executives aren’t known for either personality or passion. The general public sees business as a boring, impersonal, possibly suspect activity. Its significance seems purely financial.
“Businessmen,” Tom Wolfe tells the Wall Street Journal, “no longer have the conviction that what they’re doing is exciting and glamorous, which is, I guess, another way of saying intrinsically worthwhile.”
That was all about to change.
In the 1980s, entrepreneurs became heroes, celebrities and role models. The Apple whiz kids, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, were the new face of business.
Money was, of course, part of the appeal -- millionaires in their 20s! -- but there was much more to it than that. The aspirations for pleasure and self-expression that the sociologist Daniel Bell had condemned as the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” turned out to be its fuel.
“It’s a neat way to play,” said Dave House, who was the manager of Intel Corp.’s microprocessor division in 1982 when he posed for a magazine in a hot tub with his girlfriend, apparently naked. House wasn’t talking about his hot-tub frolics. He was explaining why he kept working once he had more money than he knew what to do with.
In the 1980s, business became a realm of passion and personality and, above all, surprises. Big changes could come from anywhere -- from backwaters such as Bentonville, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, and Portland Oregon. Or, of course, Cupertino, California and Redmond, Washington. The ethos of Silicon Valley became, if not workaday reality, then the cultural norm.
“Apple was about as pure of a Silicon Valley company as you could imagine,” Jobs said in an interview with Newsweek after he was fired in 1985. If he had been born and raised in New York, we probably would never have heard of him. But Jobs grew up knowing about David Packard and Bill Hewlett starting a business in their garage. When he was barely a teenager, he cold-called Hewlett, whose home number was listed in the phone book, and talked his way into a job at HP.
“Our role model was Hewlett-Packard,” he said in 1985. Apple just grew a lot faster.
Although the HP Way was Silicon Valley lore, it wasn’t a touchstone to the general public. Apple’s rapid success, by contrast, made quite an impression. Before long, the ideal of the loyal company man working his way to the top was being replaced by the ideal of the brilliant, arrogant college dropout conquering the world before he was 30: the entrepreneur as Alexander.
Business became more like sports or fashion: a topic of social conversation, a source of rooting interest and an expression of personal taste. The cultural, or even religious, war between Apple and Microsoft devotees would have been as inconceivable in 1981 as a “brand evangelist” or a corporate chieftain who appeared in public without a tie.
Now, by contrast, people far removed from the executive suite, working in entirely different companies or even completely different industries, have strong opinions about what strategies Apple or Microsoft or General Motors or Wal-Mart or Amazon should pursue.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” Jobs said in a 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, which has been much quoted in recent days. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
That inspiring philosophy offers the promise of greatness and self-fulfillment, but also perpetual dissatisfaction. If business isn’t just about making money, if it is about finding a version of true love and leaving a cultural mark, the stakes are much higher. Your work becomes your identity.
Nobody ever asked why Steve Jobs kept working after he was rich. Everyone understood.
(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own. This column, which was published on Aug. 26 after Steve Jobs stepped down at Apple, is all the more timely with his death on Oct. 5.)
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