As I was about to graduate from Stanford business school in the spring of 1990, Steve Jobs invited me to visit him at NeXT, the company he had founded after being forced out of Apple a few years before.
Showing me into his office, Steve, dressed in a black turtleneck and faded jeans, plopped into his desk chair, then motioned to a pile of chopsticks on his desk. He picked up a set, opening and closing the chopsticks as he spoke. “Aren’t these just beautiful? Look how clean and simple the lines are.”
He had just been in Japan, Steve explained, and at dinner one night he found himself using the best chopsticks he had ever tried. “They’re nothing but inexpensive wood, just like any other chopsticks,” he said. “But just look at them. Beautiful. I had them ship me a bunch. Here, have one.” He tossed me a set.
As we talked in his office, then drove down 101 to Palo Alto, where we had dinner together, Steve mentioned that he’d like me to consider becoming his chief of staff—I was only two years out of the Reagan White House, and Steve figured that someone who had worked for Reagan might meet his own standards—then told me about himself. Not about his life since he had become famous. About his early life. About what it had been like to grow up as an adopted kid. About what it had been like to be raised by a repo man. “If somebody got behind in his car payments,” Steve, driving a sleek black Porsche, told me, “the bank would hire my father to get the car back. My father would tail the guy. When he pulled into a McDonalds, my father would pull in behind him. And when he got out to go in and get his hamburger, my father would jump into the car and steal it. What a way to make a living.” The sheer raw mercilessness of the market. Steve experienced it early. Yet he also spoke that evening about sheer beauty, describing the Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley. “Orchards—when I was a boy there were still orchards all around here. You should have seen it when they were flowering in the spring. Clouds of blossoms.”
I declined Steve’s offer—he made it clear that he wanted me to protect him from the demands of the NeXT executives, but his executives, with whom I spent a day, made it clear that they wanted me to get Steve to give them more of his time—but we remained in touch. Steve married a friend of mine from business school. Both of us sent our kids to the same nursery school. From time to time we would run into each other at parties or in Palo Alto. The last time I saw him, we were both at a Fourth of July block party in his neighborhood a few years ago. As neighborhood kids competed in the balloon toss and pie eating contests, Steve and I talked.
We discussed both politics (Steve defended Al Gore, who had joined the Apple board, predicting that Gore would win a Nobel Prize, which he did just months later) and business (Steve gave me his analysis of Disney, explaining why he considered Michael Eisner inadequate, detailing the inferiority of Disney’s animated motion pictures to Pixar’s, and lauding Disney’s theme parks, which he considered underrated as both artistic and commercial achievements. “The way to turn around Mexico?” Steve said. “Let Disney run the country.”) When I mentioned that I had begun reading up on the Cold War, he described his friendship with Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, who had helped to develop photographic techniques for U. S. intelligence.
“Hey, Steve!” a neighborhood kid said, interrupting. “My iPhone isn’t working.”
I expected Steve to brush the young man off. Instead he took the iPhone, then spent five minutes examining the device while talking to the kid about the problems he had been having with it. Steve finally figured out what was wrong. “You’re not going to like hearing this,” he said, “but it’s not an Apple problem. It’s a problem with AT&T.” Before returning the iPhone, Steve held it up to me, pointing out the metal bezel into which the glass cover or window was set. Then he described the technical challenge involved in manufacturing it.
Intensity, ambition, a profound understanding of markets, a broad and fascinating mind—even if (and I say nothing here I failed to tell him to his face) his politics never made any sense—and a determinaton to get it right so obsessive that he felt compelled to fix a teenager’s iPhone at a block party. You can almost see how Steve earned his place. You can almost grasp how he became as important as Edison or Carnegie or Stanford or Rockefeller or Ford.
Yet one characteristic distinguished Steve Jobs from the others. It’s the characteristic that led him to toss me the chopsticks that I've kept on my desk ever since.
Only Steve insisted on beauty.