As a kid I was a sucker for a big news spectacle—OJ, Diana, Monica—and spent days of my life glued to CNN. I’m not drawn in as easily these days—partly because I’ve got less time and I’m more cynical about cable news, but more because my circle of concerns has pulled inward, to Jay and Wally and our small domestic world.
When Steve Jobs died, though, I got caught up in the spectacle. I was compelled by both the objective measure of his mark on the world and by the way he made that mark—by letting his instincts determine his work. It’s rare to find someone about whom you could say both “I want to accomplish as much as he accomplished” and “I want to live my life (at least in part) the way he lived his life.”
So for a week I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about Steve Jobs. The single most amazing thing I read was an interview he gave in 1985 to Playboy Magazine, right after the debut of the Macintosh. The interview isn’t directly related this post, but Jobs’ ability to conceptualize the computer and predict its influence is so stunning that it’s worth sharing anyway. Here’s Jobs’ answer when asked why anyone should bother buying a home computer:
Jobs: The primary reasons to buy a computer for your home now are that you want to do some business work at home or you want to run educational software for yourself or your children. If you can’t justify buying a computer for one of those two reasons, the only other possible reason is that you just want to be computer literate. You know there’s something going on, you don’t exactly know what it is, so you want to learn. This will change: Computers will be essential in most homes.
Playboy: What will change?
Jobs: The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people—as remarkable as the telephone.
The interview is full of mind-bendingly prescient declarations like that one, and the force of Jobs’ personality jumps off the page. At points the interview left me almost breathless. One of my first thoughts upon finishing it was: I need to make sure Jay and Wally read this when they’re older.
But the one Jobs quote that really caught my attention wasn’t from the interview. It was something he said at the end of his life to Walter Isaacson, the author of his official biography, which came out today. “I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs said, in explaining why he’d abandoned his desire for privacy to cooperate on a biography. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”
The tension between professional ambition and family is something I think about a lot. If my 15-year-old self were to see the life I have today, there are lots of things he’d be happy about (overjoyed, even), but I think he’d also be surprised by the degree to which I’ve prioritized taking care of Jay and Wally over other kinds of achievement.
Of course, 15-year-olds have a pretty limited perspective: They understand money and fame a lot better than they appreciate the sense of purpose and satisfaction that comes from raising a child. But that said, I’m still surprised when I consider the choices I’ve made since Jay was born—to pursue freelance and contract work as a way to pay the bills and to spend the balance of my time being a dad.
During the 2008 presidential campaign I came to admire Barack Obama more than I’ve ever admired a public figure. I admired his intelligence and his competence, but most of all I admired what I saw as his ability not to lose his sense of himself amidst the noise of a national campaign. There was also a part of me that was attracted to the size of his presence—how fully he’d brought himself to bear on the world—and craved something like that for myself.
But the thing I never got about Obama was how he’d been willing to spend so many nights away from his daughters. From 1997, when he was elected state senator, to 2009 when he moved into the White House, he probably spent more nights than not away from his family. The things he gained in return were great, but so were the things he lost. In a life where he’s seen and done more than most people ever will, he wont know what it’s like to have been a day-in-day-out part of his daughters’ lives.
Even now, two years into my life as a semi-stay-at-home dad, I still maintain some pie-in-the-sky ambitions: to run for office, or to write a book and go on tour. But then I consider what’s required to achieve something great—that you dedicate yourself to it as singularly as Steve Jobs dedicated himself to Apple. Last night as I lay on the floor in Jay’s room at bedtime while Caroline read him The Lorax, I realized again that there’s no professional achievement I’d choose over being at home with my family.
Sometimes I wish I were built differently- that I burned the way Steve Jobs burned. But I also realize that in life we don’t get to choose the things we love.