Impostor Disaster, part I: Steve Jobs

Back to the book: Remember, the whole book is a long story woven around Rudyard Kipling’s poetic insight that triumph and disaster are impostors. I want to lead up to the main character, Hannibal, with a few other examples, and today Steve Jobs comes to mind. I saw him on a stage last month, launching the new iPhone, and he looked as haggard and emaciated as death. He had had–and, he said, beaten–pancreatic cancer, and everybody in the audience must have been wondering whether it had come back. Now, people are beginning to discuss his mortality more openly, for instance here and here. Jobs talked about his encounter with cancer in a commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005. I want to talk about that speech, but not about the part where he discusses cancer (which starts at about 8 minutes, 40 seconds), even though it lends my focus some poignancy.

What hit me were his thoughts (from minute 6 to about 8 ) on the biggest failure and disaster in his life (before cancer, that is). Watch:

Just to recap, he founded Apple and it was the passion and meaning of his life, and then, at age thirty, he fell victim to a boardroom coup and was fired from his own company. He was devastated. He spent over a decade drifting from one thing to another, thinking he was lost. But, he says:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Soon it turned out that the things he was dabbling in had a meaning that would become clear. In his exile, he founded NeXT, took over Pixar, fell in love and started a family. And then … Apple bought NeXT, and he was back where he belonged, only now changed. In his second coming, Apple would become more successful than he could have dreamed in his first coming, and:

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.

I highlighted the words lightness and freed me for a reason. That is because one theme I’m exploring in the book–again, I’m always in search of the wisdom behind Kipling’s impostors–is the potential of disaster or failure to liberate. Liberate from what? I’ll get to that.


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