Thursday, October 6, 2011

People aren't Pens (The Last Thing Steve Jobs Taught Me)

I've never seen your desk, but there is one item I can almost guarantee resides there: a container of pens.  It may be a fancy looking metal cylinder, it may be a junk drawer, it may even be a coffee mug with the words "computer genius" on it, but somewhere you have a go to source for ink dispensing utensils.

The reason?

They're disposable.

A while back my employer came into possession of what I can only conclude must have been an entire cargo freighter worth of promotional pens.  Promotional items already have the reputation of being about as reliable as trusting a 6 year old to close the door behind them on their way out to play, but these pens take it to a new level.  Their lifespan was not measured in weeks or even days, no, the measure of success for these pens was whether or not you could make it to the end of the paragraph before the ink ran out.  Invariably, within two or three words of use you would find yourself doing the ballpoint version of CPR, the quick scribble.  This is where you furiously try to draw lines and circles so fast that somehow the ink will start to flow again before your aggression tears into the paper or the whole thing ignites from the friction.  This morning in the span of 5 minutes I did the quick scribble on 4 different pens and wasn't able to save one of them, and as I was calling time of death on the final one, it hit me...

Sometimes I treat people like pens.

Take for instance, Steve Jobs.

Yesterday, when I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died (via this tout from Jeff Probst of all people) I was surprised at the depth of my sadness.  Like many, I watched as the tweets and tributes rolled in and was moved by the many ways his life had impacted the world around me, yet something felt off.  I couldn't place my finger on it, but even though I knew it was worthwhile to celebrate his life, it all felt off balance.

It took the following post tying his death to the abortion issue to bring me some clarity:
"Steve Jobs passed away today. But do you know how he entered the world?

In 1954, Joanne Schiebel was a young unmarried college student who discovered that she was pregnant. In the 1950s, her options were limited. She could have had an abortion – but the procedure was both dangerous and illegal. She could have gotten married, but she wasn’t ready... Joanne opted, instead, to give birth to the baby and put it up for adoption.

And so it was that in 1955, a California couple named Paul and Clara Jobs adopted a baby boy, born out of wedlock, that they named Steven.

We know him today…as Steve Jobs.

It would not be overstating things to say that Steve Jobs is my generation’s Thomas Edison....

If your world has been transformed by the ability to hear a symphony, send a letter, pay a bill, deposit a check, read a book and then buy theater tickets on something roughly the size of a credit card…you can thank Steve Jobs.

And: you can thank Joanne Schiebel.

Imagine if that life had never happened."

The quote, attributed to Greg Kandra (I assume this one), isn't the first time I've heard this kind of story used in this way, in fact, I've likely used the same logic myself.  There is something very clearly stated here about the value of life, something clearly stated, and if I'm not mistaken, dead wrong.

I don't know Greg Kandra and I don't mean to belittle him or anyone who has used this logic before (like I said, I'm in that group). What I do know is that I love life and hate when it ends, for any reason, whether that be at the unrelenting hands of cancer or the trembling hands of a scared mom who believes she is terminating a pregnancy, not ending a life.

The question is, why is that life valuable?

Is it because of the good they do?  The things they create?  The other lives they touch?

This seems to be the logic behind the post, but what if Steve Jobs had turned out to be a heartless dictator, a psychopathic killer, or even more interestingly, just some dude struggling to get by?  If choosing adoption over abortion is valued because of the good things he did, by the same logic would the other choice have been more acceptable in those cases?

The more I consider life and the more I ponder existence, the more I realize our value and worth has nothing to do with the things we create or the change we affect.  Instead it has everything to do with one simple fact;

We were made.

In that place of beginning every ounce of value available has been granted to us.  From that genesis moment our intrinsic worth does not waver despite any efforts, internal or external, to diminish or increase it.

So why did I value Steve Jobs?  Because he performed well for me. He was useful. His accomplishments benefited me directly and he never seemed to run out of ink.

But people aren't pens.

I can judge a pen by its ink and I can throw it away when it fails to perform, but when people let me down or I can't find a use for them does their value diminish? Conversly, no matter how deep your ink flows or how beautiful the calligraphy of your life looks on the page, your true worth remains static.

Does this mean we don't honor those who use their ink well? I hope not!

We can celebrate Steve Jobs' life because he changed the way we listen to music, because he changed the way technology and culture converge, because he was essential to the financing and success of Pixar (you knew it would come back to Pixar somehow, right?) and because he was a compelling personality and leader.

But all these things pale in comparison to the simple fact that he was given breath by a creator that loved him.

And I would celebrate his mother's choice whether he invented the iPod or not.

Oh, and just one more thing...

In a 1996 interview with Wired magazine Steve Jobs said this, "Things don't have to change the world to be important"

and neither do people.