We all know that our time will come but it always comes sooner than we expect.
I remember the first time I saw Steve Jobs. I was in university at the time, working on a paper at the computing lab. Steve came down the hall with a colleague, pushing a very unusual looking black box on a rolling cart. He wore an ill-fitting dark suit, fruity tie and looked only a few years older than myself. He also looked frazzled. I could tell by the snippets of conversation that he was not entirely pleased about something. Curious, I discovered that there was a room nearby where he was setting up a demo for a computer called, “Next”. Nobody else recognised him. The only reason why I did was because I’d been an Apple II junkie and had seen some press release photos in a newspaper some years back.
That was Jobs down-and-out. It was not long after his ousting from Apple and I expect that he was upset because a lot of things were not going to plan that day, that month or that year. Next was struggling to get attention and the company that he helped co-found with Steve Wozniak, Apple – his dream – was no longer his. It was now being run by someone he had been forced to hire to help him out and, instead, the Board forced his replacement. Classic political boardroom drama.
What strikes me now is how stark the difference is between the Jobs of then and the Jobs we’ve come to know back at the helm of Apple. He looks confident, cool – something of a Bauhaus Beatnick with his Lennon glasses, turtle neck and jeans. He was once quoted in an interview as saying that being ousted from Apple was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
We are all aware of the tremendous comeback and ascension of Apple. It now has the largest capitalisation of any company in America. We are aware of the unstoppable success of Pixar – another Jobs machine. They churn out amazing movies that suck all the box office away from the competition. But, it’s interesting to pause for a moment and consider the failures.
After Jobs joined Pixar, they spent roughly 8 years in the boonies without success. Next only survived because Jobs encouraged the then-CEO of Apple, Amelio, to purchase it lock-stock and barrel in 1996 for $400 million. That was the beginning of his comeback. When you think on it, Jobs spent 10 years in relative obscurity before his life turned around again.
I’d like to celebrate the man by celebrating his failure, because his failure clearly meant something to him and unlike many of us – he actually did something about it. This reminds me of the importance of passion and commitment. If something really matters to you, then you don’t give up.
Jobs could have kicked back and said to himself (albeit bitterly), “I made Apple; that was enough in itself”. When he sold Next to Apple, he could easily have retired on the money he made. But he didn’t. He didn’t give up, because he hadn’t finished what he started. He came back and he hit a home run like never before.
A venture capitalist once told me that there often comes a time in a start-ups life when the founder of the company has to ask themself a difficult question, “Am I the one to take the company to the next level?” And, shortly after that, “Am I the one to take this company all-the-way?” Often, the founders of start-ups are great at the start-up phase but when it comes to managing a corporation, all the things that made them so good in the beginning can become a hindrance. When you scale quickly, you begin hiring middle management. It’s a very different environment. Some founders need to step aside. It’s a very personal and very painful decision.
It’s very possible that Jobs wasn’t ready to accomplish what he wanted to at Apple back in the late 80’s. It had turned into something else. Perhaps he was getting in the way. It’s romantic to think otherwise. But, he even acknowledges himself that it was a blessing. Those subsequent ten years probably taught him a lot. And this is the point I’m trying to make. Failure is important, because it can be very instructive. It gives you an opportunity to step back and question everything that you believed in. Up to then, you were passionately – and, possibly, very blindly – following an objective with the wrong mindset. Perhaps, you had taken the wrong approach but you couldn’t see it. You couldn’t step back and be objective. Failure forces you to step back.
So, as I celebrate the man, I do so by celebrating his failure. That is because it is inspiring to all of us who try and fail to achieve our dreams. It tells us to step back, re-evaluate and try again by different means. If you have the passion, the tenacity and – above all – the consideration to do better, you just might get there.
Maybe all of us have the capacity to fail – and succeed – like Steve Jobs somewhere in our lives.