Being Great, but not Good: the spirituality of Steve Jobs

His personal philosophy helped shape the company he founded — and not in ways that were entirely positive.   “I think Jobs was incontestably Great, but I doubt you could call him Good,” is how Rod Dreher described Steve Jobs, admiring his achievement but noting that a fair assessment of his life and legacy has to include his dark side.  CNN has more:

The name of Jobs’ company is said to be inspired by the Beatles’ Apple Corps, which repeatedly sued the electronics maker for trademark infringement until signing an exclusive digital distribution deal with iTunes. Like the Beatles, Jobs took a spiritual retreat to India and regularly walked around his neighborhood and the office barefoot.

Traversing India sparked Jobs’ conversion to Buddhism. Kobun Chino, a monk, presided over his wedding to Laurene Powell, a Stanford University MBA.

Rebirth is a precept of Buddhism, and Apple experienced rebirth of sorts when Jobs returned, after he was fired, to remake a company that had fallen the verge of bankruptcy.

“I believe life is an intelligent thing, that things aren’t random,” Jobs said in a 1997 interview with Time, providing a glimpse into his complicated belief system that extends well beyond the Buddhist teachings.

Karma is another principle of the religion, but it didn’t appear to be a system Jobs lived by. If he feared karma coming back to bite him, the sentiment wasn’t evident in his public statements about competitors and former colleagues, calling them “bozos” lacking taste. Those who worked for Jobs described him as a tyrant they feared meeting in an elevator.

“You’d be surprised how hard people work around here,” Jobs said in a 2004 interview with Businessweek. “They work nights and weekends, sometimes not seeing their families for a while. Sometimes people work through Christmas to make sure the tooling is just right at some factory in some corner of the world so our product comes out the best it can be.”

Some engineers who worked tirelessly on the original Mac emerged from the project estranged from their spouses and children. Jobs’ relentless work ethic may have been shaped by some of his dysfunctional family affairs as well.

Read more.

There’s another interesting perspective — finding similarities between Steve Jobs and St. Ignatius — right here.

  • Rudy

    Life is a roulette where some people end up on top, some on the bottom. United to talent is the factor of “luck” or providence. Steve Jobs is one of those people who fortune put on top with the aid of his talents but in the end that roulette goes the same way; we all have to come to the end of our lives, death is the great equalizer. Most hugely successful people step on others to get to that top and and are so driven that they leave behind broken relationships and people hurt. Steve Jobs legacy is left to the world, his spirit now has been tried by the ultimate Judge and only Him knows the true merits or failings of a soul.

  • Fr.Larry

    It’s interesting to watch some of the predictable backlash, as people react to Jobs’ life and death. How swiftly we move from “he was an innovator and genius who changed our lives for the better” to “he was a temperamental tyrant who didn’t give enough of his money to charity.”

    None of us is entirely one thing or another. Life would be so much easier if we had only simple narratives to understand, in which heroes and villains were easily detected by the colors of their hats. But human beings are more complicated than that. I think we should remember that “saint” and “sinner” aren’t mutually exclusive categories, not that I’m claiming that Steve Jobs was either. In the end, we are all dependent on God’s mercy. Let’s leave the judgements to Him, rather than creating these false dichotomies.

  • Richard Johnson

    Having worked for an Apple dealership back in the 80s and 90s I saw quite a bit of the marketing push from Apple. Jobs’ drive was indeed legendary, and yes there were many in the company who did become married to Apple. It was how you advanced in the company.

    As we critique this side of Jobs’ personality, let us also consider that this “you must marry your work” mentality has now permeated nearly every business line in our country. Look at the tendency we have to castigate employees who dare to organize a union at their workplace, or who dare to whistleblow regarding labor law violations. Look at how we denigrate the unemployed for not being willing to get out and “do whatever it takes” to support their families, even if it means abandoning them to work 3 or 4 menial jobs.

    I say this not to defend Steve Jobs. His actions speak for themselves. But I do suggest that if we are going to criticize Jobs for demanding so much from his employees, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the concerns of wage workers with the flip remark “be thankful you have a job.”

  • Klaire

    The real irony here, I think, is that it was largely owing to the technology of Apple, that few if any employees, have any “down time.” Even at family dinner, thanks to smart phones, we are “always accessable.”

    It’s no secret that the techonology we all profess to love is also the same technology that enslaves us, makes us more distant from our loved ones, consumes us, and to some extent, exploits us. Last but not least, it has fostered an entire generation of for the most part, socially “challanged” young adults, our future!

    Short of needing that 911 call, perhaps we all should ask how much we REALLY need the smart phone, or ipad, or itunes…

  • kenneth

    Unfortunately Klaire, that is the genius of marketing; not to convince you that you want something, but that your life will be incomplete and barely worth living without it. The chimpanzee/human brain has some neat, (and scary) circuitry.

  • Kevin

    I agree with Klaire. These are all great products with beautiful designs, but let’s not act like the world was in the dark ages until things like Macintosh and the iTunes came to the marketplace. The digital compression of music which ipods did so much to universalize actually results in a flatter sounding music compared to the old LPs.

    I did agree with Jobs that his competitors, especially Bill Gates, had no taste when it came to their products. He was Michelangelo compared to them.

  • http://abbey-roads.blogspot.com/ terry nelson

    Fr. Larry wins for best comment – I agree with everything he said. I know one thing for sure, Steve Jobs ‘did’ good.

  • Diakonos09

    I think its rather sad, as one watches the commentary and sympathies offered for Steve Jobs, that crowds who never knew him mourn his passing with a sentiment that actually seems directed more to their iPads and iPhones that to a person. Its as if “anyone” could have died as long as that “anyone” gave us the gadgets we love and have come to depend upon.

    I hope he had a spiritual legacy to accompany him now, just as he had a technological one here for as the psalmist prays: …he cannot take it with him when he dies; his wealth will not go with him to the grave. Even if someone is satisfied with this life and is praised because he is successful, he will join all his ancestors in death…may Steve Jobs and all the departed rest in peace.

  • pagansister

    He was a human being with all the qualities, good and bad, that that entails. Only those that really knew him are quailfied to comment on his personality. He left a legacy to the world just like other greats before him—and some of those would qualify as “not Good” also.

  • DWiss

    My observation after a few decades in business is that everyone who makes it to the top of an organization, especially a big one, has done it by being obsessively single minded, and a little bit, or a lot, ruthless. That’s not a judgement; it’s a fact. Balanced people don’t become CEO’s

    Jesus doesn’t want us to be balanced, either. He wants our single minded focus on him. I can’t think of even one “balanced” saint, and some people who knew them might have said that, in life, they were ruthless in their obsession.

    Can you imagine following the Gospel message completely and not offending someone? So I think we’re all called to become obsessive, single minded, and ruthless. The question is, whose call do we answer?

  • Klaire

    DWiss with all due respect, your analogy is deeply flawed. For starters, Job’s didn’t “make it to the top”, he WAS the top, as in HE started the company.

    I know quite a few God centered CEO’s that are no only great leaders, but inspirations to their people. My own brother happens to be one of them, offered the CEO of an international company when he was in his early 30′s. I always knew he was picked so young not because he had “Ivy League” Credential (which he dosesn’t), but because he has a great work ethic and a great understanding and compassion for people (he even shares the profits each year with every employee, not just the execs). Anyone in business knows that if you can get a real leader at the top, one that cares about the people below them, the company will thrive and the employees will stay motivated, loyal, and happy.

    Good people make good things happen, period!

    Certainly there are selfish and rotten CEO’s, but there are also just as many good ones. Not that long ago Dcn. Greg did a story on one of those boss shows about an airline CEO who was truly centered in Christ. It was one of the most moving videos I ever watched. Those people ARE out there in business, and not only are they great business people, they are great leaders and inspirations to the people they lead, which in the spiritual realm, is I think, their greatest gift.

    What could be more “God centered” than creating jobs, and giving people the true dignity of their efforts. Work has great dignity, and is necessary for self worth. When the right leader/CEO comes along, it’s a great blessing, and a win-win for all.

    To think that a profitable corporation couldn’t “follow the Gospel” is just absurd. Bringing the best out in others, be it in personal or business relationships, IS following Christ, and I suspect has far more merit than never taking the risk to lead others if that is the gift one has been given.

    As far as “offending” anyone, when you live and work in truth, that’s not an issue DWIss.

  • Richard Johnson

    “What could be more “God centered” than creating jobs, and giving people the true dignity of their efforts. Work has great dignity, and is necessary for self worth. When the right leader/CEO comes along, it’s a great blessing, and a win-win for all.”

    The right CEO, it seems to me, remembers that the workers are blessing him as much as he is blessing them. Yes, they are paid for their efforts, but it is their efforts that bring profit to the company, and ultimately to the CEO. When employees are treated like simply another commodity this relationship is broken, and everyone (including the guilty CEO) suffers.

  • Klaire

    My point Richard is that not all CEO’s treat employees like a commodity, but with dignity, respect, and gratitude. That’s a very “holy” thing, for all involved.

    Trust me, those companies ARE out there.

  • DWiss

    Klaire, with all due respect to you, I think you’re seeing things from an uninformed and naive perspective. First, while it is true that Steve Jobs was a co-founder of Apple, are you aware that the board of directors fired him from the company that he co-founded, and that he forced his way back into the company and eventually back to the top job? Quite an impressive achievement, that, but hardly the fairy tail coronation that you make it out to be.

    Second, my hat is off to your successful brother, but I think if you looked a little deeper you might find a few people whose association with him was less than wonderful. Is there no turnover at your brother’s company. Has he never had to fire anyone? If he hasn’t, I don’t think there will be profits to share for very long.

    Last, as to your notion that speaking the truth always meets with welcoming embraces, can we agree that Jesus always spoke the truth? If you’ve ever read the Gospels, you’ll remember that all that truth-telling got Him executed after three short years. I’m going to guess that he offended someone. As a test of this, the next time you’re at a cocktail party, perhaps celebrating another zero turnover year at your brother’s company, start a conversation on the evils of abortion or same sex marriage and see how fast the crowd becomes hostile. Far less than three years, I’ll guess.

  • Robin

    Of course Jobs was flawed — who isn’t? The fact remains that he is responsible for some awesome technological innovations for which I am grateful because I sure as heck would not have come up with them on my own. And, FYI, I pray the Officeon my iPad and have been doing that for two years now. His and Bill Gates’s products allowed me to earn a living while not abandoning my kids to day care. I’ll keep Steve Jobs in my prayers, as Fr. Larry and Terry have said. May he rest in peace, as may we all.

  • http://guardianoftheredeemer.wordpress.com Walt

    All of the accolades that Jobs is receiving seems to me to be a convincing argument against abortion.

  • pagansister

    From what I heard of a tribute to him today, he was given up for adoption, to a very loving couple. In this case, Walt, it seems very good that his biological mother decided to indeed have him and give him up. However I suspect someone else would have accomplished simular things had he not been born.

  • Klaire

    Pagansister (17) if that were the case, where’s the evidence? Jobs was around for 56 years and while he didn’t invent most of the technology, he prefected it to mass appeal. There is no one else in those 56 years that even came close to doing what Jobs did, making a strong case that God gives each of us unique talents.

    We can only imagine what we lost in talent from the countless aborted lives who never got a chance.


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