Oh Captain (of Industry) My Captain!

(Originally published May 24, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

Let’s just start with it.  While other girls taped up pictures of Duran Duran, Rob Lowe, Eddie Van Halen, and Matt Dillon, in my high school locker, I hung pictures of Steve Jobs.  And my friends (yes, I had some, despite the previous sentence) let me.  The fact that I also hung pictures of Wayne Gretzky and Ivan Lendl means I clearly missed the memo that looks were really the point of high school hero worship.

STEVE-02.jpgAnd trust me, you can’t find pictures of Jobs or Lendl in your average Tiger Beat or Teen Bop magazine.  No, my pinup pictures of Jobs were from Fortune and Time magazine.  When I asked a friend last week if she was familiar with the covers, there was immediate recognition, “the one with the 1970s porn mustache?”

Yep, again, missed that memo on looks.  But he had the glow of success, mystery and brilliant boy wunderkind about him.  If Matt Dillon had bad boy Outsider appeal, then Steve Jobs had bad boy confiscating parts of his mother’s blender to change the world appeal. And therein was the attraction.

See, when I was 12 I had the rare thrill to meet and chat with Steve Jobs.  It was an awards conference for people who’d done uber-nerdy things.  Even though the organizers dubbed it Gathering of The Greats, Slim is right when he refers to it as gathering of the geeks.

When it came to making conversation with Steve Jobs, a few of my brethren with thick glasses and I would ask about computers and he would ask if we liked fishing.  We were quite clever in telling him that he could invent a program for fishing on his computer. (I won’t actually demand royalties for iFish, but let’s just say, the seed for the game was planted long ago.)

But even when I was twelve, I got it.  He urged us, begged us to have a host of experiences and try new things.  Don’t just study, and focus on grades and the next achievement award.  (Granted, that’s easy to say when you’ve likely flown in on your own plane to pick up your award.) In order to contribute to society in a meaningful way, you had to acquire not only academic skills, but you also had to experience life emotionally, intellectually and passionately to see needs and solutions in our world.

I recently made my boys listen to the speech Jobs gave at the conference in 1982.  First I showed them the cassette tape it was recorded on, and explained that it was actually a precursor to the flash drive back in my early computing days. (And if you ever need someone to write an if-then statement that will loop your name on the screen, I’m your gal.)

They were not all that impressed with the cassette and only marginally more so listening to Jobs’ words of wisdom.  He spoke about what it means to be intelligent and the challenge to find some way to give back when you do have gifts. He defined real intelligence as akin to being on the eightieth floor of a building while everyone else is on the ground trying to find their way with a map.  I thought him brilliant back then, and I still find this to be a great way to describe being smart.

When the speech ended, I asked my boys what they thought.  Two tried to be complimentary, while the middle was busy asking his brothers how the world looked from the parking garage and the sub basement.

You see, we’ve been talking about Steve Jobs at our house a lot lately. Because when you reside somewhere between the 3rd and 4th floor of that building, you can get yourself enough freelance assignments that Apple will give you an iPad for a month on “editorial loan.”

Once again, we are in awe of Steve Jobs, Apple Computer, and the magic that can be made when you have innovation, a bag of experience, oodles of computer programming and luck. And perhaps my boys are just even the tiniest bit in awe of their mother – because for about three days there, the playground smack was, “Does your mom really have an iPad?”

I find it a remarkable feat of individual endowment as well as a testament to our times that my children and I could potentially hold up the same person as an object of admiration. Neil Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Sandra Day O’Connor do not appeal anew to multiple generations, but Steve Jobs has.

When my teen reverie for the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Steve Jobs takes over, Slim chimes in, “Make sure you mention that he is a control freak who backdates options and doesn’t tell shareholders he has a terminal illness.”  Corporate blemishes, I say.  Even the Greek heroes were endowed with human weaknesses.

In the years (okay, decades) since hearing him speak, Jobs’ words have come back to me periodically.  And although I may not have been a poet in Paris, visited lepers, or bought a Buddhist monk lunch – all experiences Jobs recommends to take you on a winding path – I have remembered his advice.  He was adamant that we be very careful when defining the term “success.”  And to know that it is possible to be very successful and happy without being a “rags to riches” story.  And as an adult and parent today, I recognize the wisdom in those words once again.

In today’s world of competitive parenting, accelerated classes, elite youth sports, and private college admission consultants, any yield sign is good.  Hearing the words of Steve Jobs is a reminder to help my kids find a passion before a profession, teach them that they can change the world rather than just letting the world change them.  And that fishing can be just as important as solving x for y.

Remembering my high school locker, I asked my oldest about his heroes and people he admired.  Now, lest you think this is normal dinner conversation at our house, right away he said, “Are you writing about this?”  But he played along and named some of his favorite sports and music stars – Jay-Z, Will.i.am, Patrick Roy, Dustin Pedroia and Claude Giroux.  And then he said, “and probably Steve Jobs.”

Sure, there’s a decent chance he’s gunning for an iPad of his own. There is also the distinct possibility that the figurehead of iTunes, iPod, iTouch, and iMac is on his list of heroes.  Perhaps most likely is a combination of the two.  And if my boy has figured that somehow my hero being his hero is just one more step in his master plan to get an iPad, well then I think the elevator just let him off on about the 17th floor.

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