The Steve Jobs Anti-Eulogy

Last Updated Oct 18, 2011 5:00 PM EDT

The blogosphere has been rife with remembrances of Steve Jobs over the last couple of weeks. I don't have anything bad to say about him, but now that some time has passed, I'm just going to say it: I think the hoopla over him is over the top.

A few things to consider:

1. People write about Steve to write about themselves.
If I read one more account of the one time someone talked to Steve, I'm gonna puke. I don't care that you talked to Steve. You are not special for that. And you definitely don't need to bother saying it in some self-aggrandizing pseudo-eulogy post.

One of the biggest traps in life is thinking that you're special. It's not just the trap of thinking your career problems are special. It's thinking your marital problems are special, or your reactions to some event are special. We simply are not special. The nature of humans is that we are social, and we react to each other, and there are not single people with singular ideas because there are too many of us with largely similar experiences.

This starts with Artisotle declaring that there are only seven stories, and it ends with every venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road telling every founder, "You have to assume 10 people have the same idea you have. There are no singular business ideas."

It seems embarrassingly desperate to write about the one time you saw Steve. There's got to be a higher bar than that for insight.

2. Individuals do not make history. Populations do.
To think of history as a series of people who changed our course is to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. The Great Man theory went out of fashion in the 1800s. Not even the movies get away with the Great Man theory any more, says Hollywood's actor-intellectual Viggo Mortensen.

Since then, historians have looked at movements and populations, rather than individuals, under the assumption that individuals come at a time when the world around them was ready; had that individual not been there, another would have come.

This makes sense with Steve Jobs. It would be hard to argue that without Steve there would be no mobile devices. And even the person-of-the-year-obsessed Time magazine admits that the age of networked information is a mass movement, not a movement of single, influencers.

So the idea that Steve Jobs changed history is just plain bad analysis. Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer argued that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. After he published these views in The Study of Sociology, the case was closed. At least for professional historians.

3. You can tell a lot about a society by the people they honor.
History books authored before the information age list the people you should memorize. The list comes largely from people who won wars: Napoleon, Alexander the Great, even Queen Elizabeth, a favorite with the girls, made her mark when she sank the Spanish Armada.

We like to think our sense of history has moved higher in Maslow's hierarchy. Like, maybe a higher list would include Descartes, Newton, and Edison.

This second list is where Jobs would fall.

But I think a list like that -- honoring great inventors and philosophers -- is just as shallow as honoring the war heroes.

Because we could go higher on Maslow's hierarchy and honor the caretakers and lovers of the world -- the people who spread kindness and empathy. It would start, maybe, with the moms who got MBAs and then dropped out of the workforce to take care of kids. Or maybe the dads who turned down promotions to stay home with kids. (All hail Gen X on this, of course.)

Right now, we celebrate CEOs like Jeff Immelt who work 120 hours a week while they have a child at home. I think this is a pathetic hypocrisy -- anyone who works 120 hours a week is sucking as a parent. So, when we demand that CEOs develop the same parenting skills that we ask welfare recipients to learn, then we will show how far our society has come.

4. Steve Jobs sheds more light on the nature vs. nurture debate than he does on the history debate.
Something absolutely fascinating to me about Steve is that Mona Simpson is his biological sister. If you don't know who Mona Simpson is, take a look at the book "Anywhere But Here." She is Steve Jobs' sister and the book is just one of her wildly acclaimed novels.

They have the same parents, but Steve was given up as an infant for adoption. And Mona was raised by her mom.

Steve and Mona shed a lot of light on the nature vs. nurture debate. Sure, it's just one sample, but it's very difficult to find examples for nature vs. nurture -- especially outside of the twins-separated-at-birth research.

Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" tells us about genius. That talent is nothing without drive, and drive is nothing without parents and a community of coaches to support it. But the results of Steve and Mona show us that all this nurture stuff might be bunk. And maybe as long as you have love and stability, your nature takes over.

5. Espousing the glories of genius gets us nowhere.
Genius is not something that generally matters at work. Jobs may have been a genius, yes, but few geniuses have outlets through which they can make a positive impact -- those are more rare than a true genius.

For the most part, individuals do their best if they fit in -- which means, a marriage, a stable home, a job that is engaging. These are the trappings of a fulfilling life.

Trying to be unique by saying you talked to Steve is just a symptom of the larger problem: the fetishizing of being a special genius.

The truth is that most special people are lonely, and have little impact on the world. And in the long run, group movements are what change history, and being part of a movement is what makes a person an instigator of change.

Flickr photo courtesy of acaben, CC 2.0

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