The awesomely obsessive nature of Steve Jobs — and what it teaches us about greatness

June 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, a very fine book with a number of great anecdotes. I know that a biography on Jobs might not be material normally found on The Ignatian Educator, but there are a few excerpts from the book that connect to themes found on this site.

For example, in 2009 Jobs was in a Memphis hospital being treated for his cancer. Isaacson reports:

Even when he was barely conscious, his strong personality came through. At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. The doctors looked at [Jobs’s wife], puzzled. She was finally able to distract him so they could put on the mask. He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex. He suggested ways it could be designed more simply.

So that’s what you get when the man behind the iPhone is your patient.

It’s a telling story, and I think some may dismiss it as part of Jobs’s eccentricity. But it’s more than that. I think it’s a look into his greatness as a designer and executive. He absolutely loved the world of technology and design. It was his obsession, essentially his religion. I realize there are risks in absolutizing anything that isn’t God, and Jobs’s totalizing commitment to his work alienated many people, including his family. But his life does teach the lesson that greatness must come from a passion for the work, or for the product, or for the institution or company.

I see this with teachers. The best teachers LOVE their subject, and their students, and everything that goes into being a teacher (except, of course, grading); they obsess over the arrangement of desks and the details of assignments and exams. The best teachers I’ve met — some of whom are my colleagues — have a devotion to their teams and their classes in a manner analogous to a parent’s devotion to a child. They see their work as intimately connected to their own identity, their own imprint on existence. The success of the universe hinges upon their students’ breakthroughs. In their work on the whiteboard or near the lockers, there are cosmic implications.

I think this is what, in part, made Apple so successful. Jobs wasn’t in it for the money; he was in it because he couldn’t conceive of a life where he wasn’t utterly immersed in creating great products, marrying art, technology, and simplicity. On his worst days, Jobs was demonized by his passion; on his best, though, he let that passion empower a creativity that has done what he always wanted to do, “put a dent in the universe.”

So here’s the question: how do we get teachers thinking about their classes the way Jobs felt about products and design? How do we get teachers who believe that their teaching can and should put a dent in the universe?

 

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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