It was sometime in 1995, and I was in high school. It was fall on the southwest side of Chicago, and the leaves that still clung to tree branches outside the school were gradient shades of auburn, crimson, and amber. I’ll remember that day forever—the day I left school in a whirlwind of adolescent angst, against the wishes of everyone I knew. I was leaving high school and not coming back—destined to forge my own way, regardless of the outcome.
Years would pass by like pages in a flipbook. Huge, significant events would happen, and I would barely acknowledge them—moving incessantly forward—never giving pause. I’d eventually reach my twenties, and then my thirties, and then—only then—would I finally look back and recognize the significance of so many moments. It seems I had to follow my heart, wherever it led me, for better or worse.
A few weeks ago, we lost one of the most innovative technological minds of the twenty-first century. Even though he was given up for adoption, and eventually fired from the very company he started—and even though he dropped out of college and had a child out of wedlock—Steve Jobs transformed into a modern day icon. He became a rock star CEO who captured America’s attention and never seemed to let it go. Jobs became a symbolic figure to an entire generation of kids that live their lives through iEverything. Simultaneously, he sent men in Windsor knots and wingtips—tattered copies of John C. Maxwell and Jim Collins in hand—scrambling to figure out how someone who seemingly broke every single leadership rule could have such a commanding piece of the ultra-competitive computer industry.
Jobs was a compelling figure, not just because he figured out a way to incorporate his love for architecture into his products (clean, elegant lines that accentuated effortless minimalism), but because he took a winding path through life—a snaking, twisting, meandering passageway riddled with potholes and catacombs. He won over even the hardest of hearts, by refusing to stay down, no matter the pitfalls. He recognized his mistakes as critical to life, and saw them as opportunities. He saw past the complexities of certain things, opting often to focus on the inner simplicity of a moment or a machine. An enigmatic leader, he was a man who could see the forest and the trees.
When Jobs passed away, I felt a profound sense of sadness—oddly—perhaps you can relate. Like most, I never met him—I didn’t know much more about him than anyone else. And yet, I was deeply moved knowing that he was no longer on this earth—no longer going to be directing the innovation behind the products that have changed all of us. It’s hard to explain; it’s a sensation I’ve had only a few other times in my life. I connected with Jobs—his efforts—on a level that often felt deeper, and more real, than some of the connections I had in my actual daily life. And only now, from a MacBook Pro, in a coffee shop in my mid-thirties, can I finally begin to understand what this loss truly means to all of us.
Perhaps my epiphany comes from understanding not what Jobs did do, but what he didn’t do. He didn’t conform to a societal version of success. He didn’t follow a well-adapted pathway to achievement. He didn’t fit a pre-determined mold. Instead, he forged his own way, and took a chance at destiny. By listening to his instincts, he spearheaded a technological revolution that changed the face of so much we all now take for granted, and will forever.
When YEP’s editor, Mike Chalmers, and I waxed eloquent about the idea for this piece, he dropped some compelling points. “Think about it,” he said, “we live amid history but we don’t know it until well after its time. We’ve been living within, perhaps, the most transformative time in human history, but it’s hard to comprehend its true measure because it’s impossible to step away from the present, as we’ll do thirty years from now. In the future, kids will be just as bored with the year 2012, in history class, as we were with 1912, but imagine how exciting the time was for those living it—for us.”
With Jobs, we’ve been living with one of the greatest minds in human history. If you had said, at any point, that he stands on the same pedestal as Galileo, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Aristotle, Einstein, Newton, Graham Bell—people might roll their eyes. An interesting thought to ponder.
The thing about true greatness is this: it’s a lot easier to recognize in hindsight—after we’ve had time to process it. We have an amazing capacity to get used to conditions, and that includes people, and their efforts. We come to rely on greatness in the way that we often get used to a lot of things. There are times when greatness, oddly enough, can feel, well, normal. Not that Jobs was ever thought of as such, but we certainly got used to his brilliance in a way that we expected nothing less.
So where does that leave us? For starters, it leaves us incredibly blessed. We’ve had the opportunity to transform with the times. We’ve been a part of something incredibly special—something that changed the course of history. We’ll always be able to say: We were there.
I’ll always feel a twinge of sadness that Steve Jobs is no longer with us, but I’m also grateful that he paved the way for people like me—people who got to the fork in the road and just went straight, right through the grass. He taught us that regardless of what the world wants to turn you into, the greatest triumph in life is staying true to yourself, no matter where the road takes you. There is no recipe for success—only those who are willing to follow their hearts, and those who aren’t. The world is ours for the changing.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t let him handle the closing of this piece: “The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
— Editor’s note: Tim has been a busy man and we’d like to reward him for it. You can easily follow him on Twitter @TimHillegonds. You can enjoy his Shady Dreams at timhillegonds.com/blog/. And check out his latest book: Vodka Flavored Tears. For additional links and more information, click here. YEP certainly gets fired up when people put in the work. Tim is doing just that.