A year ago, after Steve Jobs died and a public debate played out over whether or not he deserved to be mourned--"a fine designer and astute businessman, but surely no saint"--I wrote this essay. It argues that there are different ways to give back to the world, and that most of them don’t look like godliness.
I was thinking about the destructively unrealistic expectations that we have for leaders and public figures in this country. But I was also thinking about a criticism often aimed at architects and other designers: our work doesn't cure cancer, end poverty, or create world peace. More often than not the impact of our profession on these major social concerns is indirect and nearly invisible. Most of us have probably had moments of doubt when we're photoshopping pictures of trees at 4 am and wondering why, if we're working so hard, we're not directing our efforts towards something that yields more direct benefits for our fellow humans or even just for ourselves.
Here's what I have to say to this 4 am self.
When I was twelve, I wept at my grandfather’s funeral. Later, I realized that others hadn’t shed tears, or not nearly as many. As an uncommunicative man who was quick to anger and slow to forgive, he was not a family favorite.
He didn’t talk much: his hearing wasn’t good, and his English not fluent. But he spoke in other ways. He made me toys, a bed, a tree grafted with three varieties of pears. He set a stone path through the garden, one that wove through spaces too small for an adult but just right for child. He pretended not to notice when I discovered it, instead gruffly reminding me to not step on his plants.
That was his way.
So when I read Mona Simpson’s eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs—and read about Jobs’ temper and exactitude and insuppressible faith in the capacity of beauty to transform the world—it felt familiar. Her words reminded me that people give back to the world in different ways, despite our efforts to define in emotional or vocational terms what it means to be good.
By many accounts, Jobs was a rude, manipulative, impetuous man—but this is not what I'm thinking about right now. And I don’t think that those who have mourned Jobs’ death should be shamed into dwelling on these unsavory aspects of his character.
I don’t condone Jobs’ bad behavior, but nor am I interested in making a show of criticizing it. It doesn't bother me that he focused on some projects and not others, as Hamilton Nolan commented in his recent essay, “Steve Jobs was not God”: “He did not meaningfully reduce poverty, or make life-saving scientific discoveries, or end wars or heal the sick or befriend the friendless.”
Nolan’s words recall our favorite clichés about world peace, cures for cancer, and ending hunger and homelessness. These notions serve as shorthand for the big, good things that we have no collective, pragmatic idea how to achieve. But consider this: if we reach any of these goals it will not be because of one person or project. It will be because of countless subtle shifts in the way we live, catalyzed by the innovations and epiphanies and experiences of different people in different places and times. If we accept that this is true, maybe we could stop judging the worth of a person’s endeavors by how vigorously they aspire to deliver these goods to us fully formed. Goodness comes in different forms.
Nolan goes beyond criticizing Jobs: “Real outpourings of public grief,” he writes, “should be reserved for those people who lived life so heroically and selflessly that they stand as shining examples of love for all of humanity.”
I did a double take when I read this: should? How can one suggest what others ought to be moved by? The emotions expressed in the wake of Jobs’ death often took people by surprise. They were real, in the way that a more calibrated display of grief would not have been. Are we so accustomed to the manipulation of slogans and sound bites that we’ve forgotten that emotions can simply be honest reflexes—that the heart can precede the mind?
The mind, of course, does not always follow the heart. We often experience emotional outpourings, then mop up and return to business as usual. But we can also take this moment to ask: what was it about the innovations and epiphanies and experiences that Jobs brought to us that touched so many of us? Can we learn from his achievements and mistakes to do better, in whatever ways we are each capable? Can we accept the ambiguity of being inspired by a life that was not perfect?
I say this because I have been inspired by such a life. I remember the wonder that I felt as a child as I explored the house and garden that my grandfather crafted, in the materials he could afford, in a process that was never complete. This wonder stays with me when I sit down at my desk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where I study architecture. It motivates me to think about the ways that I, with my particular skills and interests, can give back to the world. To think that there are many answers to our collective problems.
Through the products that he willed into being, Steve Jobs invited us to work, play, and think different. He made his difference in ways that only he could, and to me this is what really matters.
Thanks for reading,
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