(Jessica is drowsily stirring after a very long night of high fever, vomiting, cool showers, vomiting, tears, vomiting and exhaustion)…
Mel: I’m so sorry you had such an awful night, honey!
Jessica: I had a wonderful night, Mummy. I got to be with you in the big bed - they’re the best nights of all.
Jessica: Why are you crying, Mummy?
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” - Steve Jobs to Pepsi’s John Sculley, 1983
It’s been twelve hours since I learned - via Twitter, via iPhone - of the death of Steve Jobs. Like many others, I’ve thought of little else since.
Even as someone with a deep admiration for the man, for Apple, for Pixar, for everything he’s helped to create, the news is affecting me more profoundly than I might have expected. Perhaps some of it relates to that quote above.
In addition to the “ugh…such a sad, tragic loss” , the “how unfair for his wife and family that they had so little time” and the “wow…what a truly astonishing legacy”, his passing is forcing me to reevaluate other things. Like this job that I’ve been in for almost 22 years and which I’m likely to still be in when I’m 45 or perhaps even 50. Like my own legacy.
I’m 37. I sell sugar water.
He was 56 and revolutionised our world. Leaving aside Apple’s astronomical financial success, he turned entire industries on their head, delighting millions like me and making so many aspects of so many lives significantly better. I daily watch my 3 and 5 year old kids devouring educational games on the iPad, composing their own songs in Garage Band, typing stories on the iMac (and squealing delightedly when they select all text and invoke “Alex’s” friendly voice, reading their simple stories aloud). The superlatives have all been exhausted, and to say much more risks descending into cliché, but in short: the man was a Giant.
I’m 37. I have been with the same employer - a major retailer - since 1990. It is not a challenging, satisfying, or rewarding role and I have learned nothing there in at least the last ten years. I’m very good at my job, but that is hardly saying anything at all. I sell sugar water or - to be more precise - I’m part of a chain that facilitates others selling sugar water. If I’m honest, for 50 hours of the week I achieve nothing of lasting impact or significance.
I have always rationalised taking a stoic, stiff-upper-lip approach to my job by saying that ‘that’s what good people, good husbands, good fathers do: they don’t put their families in jeopardy “chasing their dreams” - they put those things aside and focus on stability and security and bringing in a regular, reliable salary’ (and, if they’re lucky, they’ll pay off their mortgage eventually and may have enough time and health later in life to follow up on some of those earlier passions).
But this week I happened upon 3 completely-separate podcasts and online presentations that all challenged that approach and extolled the value of quitting (to do something you’re actually passionate about without worrying too much about the consequences in terms of stability/reliability). It got me wondering if I’m perhaps taking the wrong approach. In looking to be selfless (which is a good thing) am I ultimately wasting talents and skills that could - and should - have made a difference somewhere else? Am I doing my family (and perhaps my community, and others) a disservice by spending 22+ years in a meaningless role just because it pays the bills?
Have I overvalued ‘tenacity’ and ‘stoicism’ and undervalued passion? Will my kids be disappointed that - while they love me and consider me a decent guy who ‘sacrificed’ some talents and ambitions to provide home and food etc - I never really left any sort of lasting legacy?
So when I read that Steve Jobs died today, I was dismayed at the fact of his passing, at the impact on his wife and family, and on the sad curtailment of such a brilliant life that promised so much more. But on another level, I realised that this was and is the fourth prompt I’ve had this week that maybe things need to change.
Maybe I’ve been wrong all along? Maybe it’s precisely when I think I’m doing the right thing by putting passions and ambitions and talents on the back-burner for my family (which I will gladly and quietly go on doing until the End of Time if it’s the right thing to do), I’m actually modelling a terrible example.
I would never knowingly teach J, B or L to work in a meaningless, unchallenging, unrewarding environment for more than half of their lives (on the contrary, I foresee a lot of “The sky is the limit!”, “Travel!” “Learn!”, “Volunteer”, “Find your passions!”, “Keep your eyes open but don’t be fearful of taking chances…you have such talent and the world needs your input” etc) but isn’t that exactly what I am modelling to them? What a hypocrite, right?
I know Steve Jobs wasn’t perfect - I really do - but he would have to be the quintessential example of passion, courage, creativity, vision…and legacy. The guy was a giant. Where would we be if Steve Jobs had instead taken a safe, stable route and worked at a grocery retailer for the last half of his life?
I don’t want Steve Jobs’ success. But I cannot get to the end of my life and find that all I’ve got to show for it - aside from a beautiful family, which l adore and absolutely do not take for granted here - is having helped pallets of groceries pass through a distribution network more efficiently.
Steve Jobs led an amazing life, by anyone’s standards.
Me? I’m 37. I still sell sugar water. The clock’s ticking…
(Image cropped from Time magazine, 2010)