Garrett (garote) wrote,

Good grief

I'd hoped he'd have more time in retirement, but I suppose it's just like him to work until the very last day.
I probably would have, too.

It's been three months since I left Apple, under my own cloud of ill-health. Since then I've been struggling to reconcile three things:

1. That place inspired me to do the best work I've ever done in my life.

The products and the workplace were a vindication of my culture and attitude. I mourn that feeling of being at the top of my game. It feels better than any vacation, tastes better than any gourmet food. It has greater currency than money itself. The temptation to go back - to ignore my own inner voice of warning - is very real.

I suspect that Steve's ability to create such a place was a consequence of his relationship with Apple's co-founder, Steve Wozniak, the consummate and archetypical computer geek. Computer geeks love to explore the weird edges of a system, and have a strong appreciation for elegance in problem solving, but there is also something more subtle in their makeup: They do not stake their personal worth on their ideas. Instead, they stake their personal worth on their ability to refine ideas. If an idea sucks - no matter who came up with it - that idea is optimized out. In this general sense, all programming is optimization, from the first prototype to the last patch. Mr. Jobs took that attitude and constructed a company with it. Relentless optimization, of form, function, quality, and cost. Is it any wonder that computer geeks find it electrifying to work there? I sure did.

2. The focus demanded by that work is unsustainable for me.

The problem was, I could not cram myself permanently into the box labeled "engineer". I began to wonder what else I could do - what else the world contained - and once I got sick, I realized I might never find out. Getting sick was, and is, my wake-up call to quit deferring my own happiness. My response to that has revealed my character to be more like Steve Wozniak than Steve Jobs.

It's like this: Steve Jobs may have made the cover of Newsweek more often, may have made a bigger dent in the universe, but The Woz left his own company to pursue a kind of life that could not be found within its walls. He played guitar and sang in front of his 5th grade classroom, created his own music festival, went back to UC Berkeley under an assumed name, pranked the TSA with his credit-card shaped "knife", et cetera. He continues to explore society in a range of ways that are just not available to a "company man". Sure, he got away with it partly by being richer than Croesus, but the point is, the compulsion.

Part of me wishes it were as simple as putting in my time - 25 more years at the office, driving ideas forward from a series of desks. But that version of me peeled off like a ghost about 1 year ago, and now I'm someone else, lingering at his side while he stays rooted to his office chair. I don't know where Apple will take him in the next five years. I don't know if I want to be along for the ride.

3. Even knowing this outcome in advance, I would still take the job.

I could have stayed in my soft-pedaled job in Santa Cruz, but I didn't want to. I could have refused to accept the expansion of my duties, but I didn't. I could have taken a leave of absence when I got sick. Instead I worked to my own bitter end, and it turns out, the five years I had were probably the most exciting five years in Apple's resurgence. The Man with The Plan is now gone, and his absence leaves a hole that, in the very worst case, may now be filled by some business-as-usual schmuck no more inspiring than the CEO of ENCOM*.

But anyway, those three points are warring in my head, tangling up my vision of my future. Steve's death hit me harder than I anticipated, and the balance has changed a little bit. He took with him the secure belief that there was someone at the very top of that company armed with a magic crap detector, a really good one, right where a magic crap detector is most important, and that's meaningful to every employee who has an idea to champion, and on the outside, to everyone who owns stock. More personally, he represented a culture, one that rejected artifice and frivolity, and embraced personal accountability. But even more directly than that: He was married to his job.

While I appreciate all those things about him, it's the last one that I take exception with. I can't aspire to that. I don't want to.

( *The fictional company from Tron, not the actual company.)
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