As young men born in the same year (1955), they set out from the same starting point, but with radically different personalities. In the early days of personal computers, both dropped out of college and launched their own businesses. Of the two, the late Steve Jobs was always the quick, live-for-the-moment hare, while Bill Gates was the dispassionate, lawyerly, bide-your-time tortoise.
For two decades, the race between the two went according to script, with the hare jumping out to a huge early lead, before falling hopelessly behind. Apple Computer appeared to be headed for bankruptcy in 1997 when Gates and Microsoft came to the rescue with a $150 million investment. While appearing as the noble competitor, Gates could not hide his contempt for his longtime rival. In a Vanity Fair article in 1998, Gates said sneeringly — “What I can’t figure out is why he is even trying. He knows he can’t win.”
But this is when the fable took an amazing twist.
In the last 12 years of his life, Jobs reinvented himself and his business not once but several times, and finished far ahead of his rival. He built the most valuable business in the world–creating more than half again as much wealth for his shareholders as Microsoft.
Microsoft reached its all-time peak in market capitalization in September of 2000, when the stock was worth $642 billion. Today it is worth only about a third as much–at $229 billion (as of Oct. 25).
By contrast, Apple’s market cap has climbed from a mere $6 billion at the end of 1998 to $364 billion today (again, Oct. 25)–a 60-fold increase.
As Walter Isaacson writes in his just-released and highly readable biography, Jobs “revolutionized six industries”–personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing–and he “reimagined a seventh”–in creating the stores that became shrines to his memory in the days and weeks following his death from pancreatic cancer on October 5.
As many have commented, Jobs saw himself as an artist no less than a businessman or technologist. His artistry is evident in what now seems his last will and testament: the now-famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford.
In the speech, viewed by millions of people around the world in the days following his death, Jobs spoke publicly for the first time about his own possibly failing health–using that for his foil in telling students: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Countless commencement addresses contain a similar message. It is indeed what the old blow-hard Polonius said in Hamlet–“To thine own self be true.” But none that we have seen have said it so eloquently or so powerfully.
It is interesting to compare this commencement address with the one that Gates gave two years later at Harvard. Jobs told his biographer that he composed his speech on his own, critiqued only by his wife. Whether that is entirely true or not, the speech shines with a sense of authenticity–a sense, that is, of the speaker being the true author of his thoughts, words, and actions.
By contrast, as Gates told the Wall Street Journal in a story published shortly after he spoke, he labored on his address for more than six months–reading Nobel Prize acceptance speeches by Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and others; soliciting the advice of humor-and-communications coach Warren Buffett at different stages of composition; and bouncing outlines and drafts back and forth with a Gates Foundation speechwriter who had written for Slate, the online magazine owned by Microsoft. His speech has both the carefulness and the clumsiness of a document drafted by a committee, and it makes Gates seem something of a poseur–pretending to a wisdom that he doesn’t possess.
Let us take a closer look at the style, structure and content of the two speeches.
“Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life,” Jobs began. “That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”
By contrast, Gates opened his speech with a series of remarks filled with self-directed yet self-congratulatory humor:
I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.”
I want to thank Harvard today for this timely honor. I’ll be changing my job next year…and it will be nice to have a college degree on my résumé.
I applaud the graduates today for taking a much more direct route to your degrees. For my part, I’m just happy that the Crimson has called me “Harvard’s most successful drop-out.” I guess that makes me valedictorian of my own special class…I did the best of everyone who failed.
But I also want to be recognized as the guy who got Steve Ballmer to drop out of business school. I’m a bad influence…
And so on. Gates continued in the same jokey vein for several more paragraphs–surely making many members of the audience wince and wonder when he would get to the point.
THE THREE STORIES OF STEVE JOBS
Unlike Gates, Jobs did not boast about dropping out of college. Nor did he flatter his audience by paying tribute to how special they are as members of an elite institution. His dropping out is woven into the first of his three stories–a story “about connecting the dots” in his passage from childhood to early adulthood.
This story begins before he was born–with the decision by his unwed mother to put him up for adoption. She insisted that the working-class couple who adopted him promise to send him to college. And they did.
In his words, Jobs “naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford”–attending Reed College, a small liberal arts school in Oregon. At this stage in his life, Jobs had “no idea” what he wanted to do and “no idea” how college was going to help him figure it out. He felt guilty about putting his parents to unnecessary expense, so he “dropped out” after six months at Reed and then “stayed around,” or “dropped in,” for 18 more months–auditing classes of his own choosing while paying no tuition.
He took one course in calligraphy, where he “learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”
While none of this had any practical application at the time, it did later on: “We designed it all into the Mac.”
The lesson drawn: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
The second of Jobs’s stories is “about love and loss”–how “getting fired from Apple [in 1985] 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 in my life. During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife.
The third and climactic story is “about death”–and the heightened awareness that came to him as a result of being diagnosed with cancer:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. 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. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
In moving from the critical moment in Jobs’s speech to that in Gates’s, we move (it must be said) from the sublime to the ridiculous. After all the jokiness of his opening, Gates lurches into a seriousness that is hard to take seriously in this passage:
But taking a serious look back…I do have one big regret.
I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world–the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.
But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries–but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity–reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
I left campus knowing little about the millions of people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.
It took me decades to find out.
Shame on Harvard for not making Global Inequities 101 part of the core curriculum! The nerdy kid from Seattle had to become a billionaire many times over–had, indeed, to become the world’s richest man–before he donned the armor of a knight of philanthropy and went out to do battle against those Awful Inequities.
There is much more drivel along the same lines. Gates speaks in the same language–the language of victimization–that is now heard from the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Only he is slightly to the left of them. He is not just a Ninety-Nine Percenter; he is up there at 99.5 percent:
When an airplane crashes, officials immediately call a press conference. They promise to investigate, determine the cause, and prevent similar crashes in the future.
But if the officials were brutally honest, they would say: “Of all the people in the world who died today from preventable causes, one half of one percent of them of them were on this plane. We’re determined to do everything possible to solve the problem that took the lives of the one half of one percent.
Even for someone who is partly responsible for destroying more than half of his company’s market capitalization over the past decade, Gates shows a shocking lack of understanding of free-market capitalism.
“If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians,” Gates pontificates, “we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world.”
But that is exactly and precisely wrong. Contra Gates, there is no good way to mix generating votes for politicians and generating profits for legitimate businesses. In backward countries ruled by unscrupulous (or monstrous) tyrants, anything that helps to prop up existing government will almost certainly be something that undermines the disciplines and rewards of free enterprise. It will perpetuate bribes and kickbacks and help to ensure that corrupt but politically-favored businesses win out over those that work hard to serve their customers and earn an honest profit.
According to Gates–and this is where we come to the theme of the speech–“The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.”
So, at the end of the day, it is “too much complexity” that is causing all the problems–not corruption…or man’s inhumanity to man…or the desire of dictators to do everything they can to increase their power while restricting the freedom of all those they wish to keep in a state of servitude.
With his rose-colored glasses firmly in place, Gates peers into the future toward the end of an overly long address and issues this challenge to students:
I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue–a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.
Ah, to think that we might live in a world where Harvard boys are united in spending at least a few minutes or hours a day combating Global Inequities! Utopia must be just around the corner.
As veteran speechwriters in our own right, we would not want to end this article on an ironic and dispiriting note.
Bill Gates does not seem such a cardboard character in Isaacson’s biography of his rival as he does in his Harvard speech. Though lacking in Jobs’s charisma and his outrageous, uncanny, and often hilarious ability to bend other people to his will, Gates does occasionally come to life as a real person and an astute businessman.
Jobs and Gates feuded in the mid-’80s over GUIs, or graphical user interfaces (i.e., the easy-to-use mouse and other features that replaced old-fashioned prompts such as C:/> that required users to type out commands). Jobs worried and raged that Microsoft as an Apple supplier had been stealing Apple’s pioneering and user-friendly technology in this area. Gates countered that Apple had, only a few years earlier, copied the same technology from Xerox PARC. That set the stage for a classic confrontation soon after Gates revealed that he would develop a new operating system for IBM PCs featuring a new point-and-click navigation system (much like Macintosh, introduced two years earlier) that would be called Windows. As Isaacson tells the story:
Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him. Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. “You’re ripping us off!” he shouted. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!” [Andy] Hertzfeld [one of Jobs’s lieutenants] recalled that Gates just sat there coolly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back what became a classic zinger. “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
In becoming the industry standard, Windows was Gates’s and Microsoft’s ticket to long-term success–and corporate complacency. Unlike Jobs–the endlessly inventive hare–Gates has never surprised or delighted his customers. Instead, he has kept them in more of a hammerlock–forced to accept succeeding generations of uninspired software with many annoying features.
“I hope you will come back to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and energy,” Gates said in ending his commencement address on a characteristically preachy note. “I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s inequities…on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.”
Jobs, as usual, was more succinct and personal. In the context of another story from his younger days, he told his audience at Stanford:
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”