His Greatest Contribution

August 25th, 2011

I bought my first Mac in December 2005, just before Apple announced their transition to Intel processors. Before then, all I had ever owned were Windows-running PCs. Windows was a never-ending puzzle, where I had to figure out how to make something work the way I wanted it to. Windows just was; asking why it was designed that way was superfluous, because Windows was something you worked around, not with.

For me at that time, computers were something you used to do work—they are the way they are, maddening though they might be at times, but you accepted it the way it was so you could work on whatever you needed to. Work was merely work, something that had to be done, the sooner the better, because work is work and once you’re done you’re no longer working.

The Mac changed that for me. It threw it out completely. I used a lampshade-iMac running Mac OS X Panther for the first time in late 2004 while doing class work in the school library. I knew it was very different than what I was used to, so I finished the assignment and started aimlessly wandering around the operating system.

Mac OS X seemed logically designed, as if someone intentionally designed it to work the way it does because it makes sense for it to work that way. People had thought through how it should work, spending God knows how much time just thinking about it, then building it and testing it, re-thinking and revising their work, until they were left with something that seemed intuitive. Until it seemed self-evident that it should work that way, and no other way made any sense at all. I opened every application I could to see how it was designed and how it worked, looked through the Finder—every inch of it I had time to look through.

That was like a smack upside my head. I was excited. At the time, I thought it was because I was a geek discovering a new computer, but now I’ve realized that wasn’t it. I started to realize that work doesn’t just have to be work.

Before then, I held to a dichotomy I think a lot of people do: there’s work, which is what you have to do, and there’s play, which is what you want to do and enjoy doing. Looking at that iMac, though, I knew that couldn’t be true for the people who designed it. There’s no way. If someone is going to pour so much of themselves into something, they must love doing it. This isn’t work for them—it’s something incredibly meaningful and real, something they feel is their live’s work.

His Greatest Contribution

That’s Steve Jobs’s greatest work. He built an entire company on the idea that not only can work be worth doing, but it should be worth doing.

Think about how radical an idea that is. For most people, their job in and of itself is unfulfilling. What’s rewarding to them, and what’s sought after most, is the paycheck. Their reward for slogging it out at a job they don’t enjoy is they get to take home enough money to live comfortably.

If you want to understand why Apple’s been so successful, it all starts with that idea. It’s because they’ve ruthlessly hewed to it. If something isn’t meaningful to them, if it doesn’t resonate inside them or they don’t think it makes sense for the company to do, they don’t. They don’t say, well, this’ll be a fine business to get into because it’ll make a lot of money for the company.

They ask, does it make sense for Apple to get into this business? Does it fit who we are? Does it excite us? Can we do it really, really well? You can’t make decisions like that unless you believe that your work should be worth doing, should accomplish something great.

That’s where it all begins. And that is Steve Jobs’s greatest contribution.