"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important thing I've ever encountered."
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Steve Jobs: The man with vision also caught his own mortality in the shadows

October 9, 2011

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

A man should be measured by how he lived. Steve Jobs will also be measured by how he faced death. And how he died.

Six years ago, a year after he learned he had cancer, Steve Jobs addressed graduates at Stanford University in Palo Alto, a pleasant walk from where he grew up, and talked about dying.

"For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'no' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

It was an exceptionally unusual commencement address. Steve Jobs was a very private man. He had seldom talked about himself and had always shielded his wife and his children from the press.

This time was different. Doctors at first diagnosed his cancer as one of the deadliest known and told him he could die soon. The diagnosis soon improved to a lesser form of cancer, one that could be beaten. But Steve Jobs had a sense, even then, that his mortality was much more frail than a doctor would admit.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important thing I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he told Stanford's seniors, "because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."

That was the way he lived his life after it threatened to slip away. His accomplishments became the technological expression of "important" -- the Apple II, which brought computing into the home; the Mac, the world's first modern computer; the iPhone and iPad, Pixar animated films, elegant laptop computers and an epoch-making music store that singlehandedly killed off the future of music CDs.

And all from a guy who had no grand oratorical style but became the world's most successful on-stage presenter. Fans said Steve Jobs possessed a "reality distortion field" that surrounded him and his pronouncements the minute he took the stage; whatever he said, whatever he did, was "magical" -- his favorite word -- and sure to bring on prolonged applause.

All from a guy whose birth parents gave him up -- a reject, starting out life as a castaway. All from a grown-up kid who never had more than a single semester of college. It was an interesting life.

It was clear that Steve Jobs had a vision that most of us lacked. He could see trends before they came over the horizon. He could sense the yearning teenagers felt for a continually refreshed stream of new music. It's not surprising that his internal eye caught his mortality in the shadows.

"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose," he said at Stanford. "You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."