What it all means

I encountered my first Apple product in high school. I had come across a set of Apple IIs and remember trying out programs that taught typing, biology, and a few other areas of the school curriculum. I remember my grandmother going on about Steve Jobs for some reason – I think it was about a stock transaction and some press happening at the time. She seemed to try and point him out to me whenever she could; I suppose to exert some positive influence on me. He certainly dressed better than I: he wore bow ties and all I had on was a Grateful Dead t-shirt and a pair of worn-out jeans.

I had a series of Atari machines at home, and was even writing BASIC programs myself to handle my daily concerns – a personal phone book, a thing to program in bass lines and then set a tempo to whatever jazz tune I was trying to learn to improvise with, and a few other little experiments.

I remember coming across Atari and Commodore machines long before I first saw an Apple computer. But when I saw the Apple and worked with it a bit, I realized where the inspiration for those Atari and Commodore machines came from.

Then my teacher showed me his new Macintosh. He got only one for the school that year. It was amazing. It looked and worked like nothing any of us had seen before – fonts, graphics, the mouse, everything polished.

It had a modem. I had never heard of a modem. It connected to Bank of America. And some message boards. CompuServe, if I recall correctly.

Dark Castle. My cousin and I played Dark Castle until we dropped. When I worked the computer lab at NEC, we had Spaceward Ho LAN parties. I know what you’re thinking – whee that is the slowest game on earth. Hey this was 1991 on an AppleTalk network with a bunch of music majors…

At NEC I encountered Finale which did music engraving and arranging. I built myself a tidy little side business helping other students typeset their music theory and composition work, not to mention all the word processing, concert flyers, and copyediting I did. Having computer skills came in quite handy back then. It was Finale that taught me about typography and page layout, in that interesting and roundabout way that music engraving can only provide. It was working in Finale that led to my interest in computer-based graphic design, and ultimately in web development.

When I started weaning myself away from my music career, I took various daytime temp office gigs. I wound up commuting in to San Francisco from the opposite coast on a long BART ride every morning. I wound up on the road quite a bit as a computer systems trainer. I wanted something to do with all that down time commuting and traveling, and so I bought my first PowerBook, a 1400cs.

I taught myself a massive amount of graphic design and web development on that machine. (In-between a little WarCraft here and there, I’ll admit.) I always had a programming book with me on the train or in the airport, and I’d spend my time learning new skills. I haven’t stopped. I still do this today – study a new technology every chance I get, on my MacBook or maybe more recently in conjunction with an e-book on my iPad.

I have always loved to develop for these machines, and for the web, and now for all these little handheld devices that have way more power than those original Ataris and Apple IIs. And I love to spread that enthusiasm to others. How to build awesome websites. How to develop with joy. I love teaching, presenting ideas, getting others excited about it all.

Steve Jobs was the ultimate presenter. I would always look to him for inspiration on how to deliver an idea. He was also the ultimate visionary – I would always look to him to try and think ahead. Not so much to think what he was thinking, but to think in a similar methodology that would help me get to where I needed to go. He also had a passion for detail that I looked up to constantly.

Most importantly, underneath all that corporate and marketing glitz, underneath all the crazy stories and keynotes, there was a regular human being. A human being that had warm, humble, personal, and profound ideas, words of wisdom. Just another person trying to figure out what to do with his life. Basically, this person:

I saw Steve Jobs speak many times and studied his presentation style for my own stage technique. But in that speech above, everything hits home like a spike in the railroad tracks of my life. Everything. Every word of it. But mostly this:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, 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.

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.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

My emphasis added from the transcript. I’m sorry to point out the gloomy part, especially on a day like this. But that is the part that, when I first read it in transcript, made me remember what all this is all about. I can remember talking with my grandmother, bedridden for years before she passed away, and thinking to myself – reminding myself constantly – that I had to do something with myself, and something great. Or to at least die trying. It’s the meaning behind that part that has fueled all of my passion in what I do today. It is exactly why I push forward, no matter what. It’s the knowledge that I am mortal, and that there are generations that will follow me that will be influenced upon the things I do and say. I want that to be positive influence, as much as I can muster in my flawed and tragic human way, in what little time I have on this Earth.

And in a way, this isn’t gloomy after all; this is just life moving forward. I am sad today for losing a great inspiration, and I am sad for all the people far closer to him than I that are truly at a loss. But as for the notion of our own mortality, I am hopeful for the future. I am hopeful that future generations will be better off, will have learned from our experiences, and will continue to improve us all and move us forward. I am grateful for having been influenced, in a positive way, and I hope to continue to pay it all forward.

But still, right now, I just feel sad.

On Contributing

If you’d like an idea of what I had to put up with every Friday in college:

This is the most important moment right now, which is: We – are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something. Everyone was clear that you contributed passion to the people in this room, right? Did you do it better than the next violinist? Or did he do it better than another pianist? I don’t know; I don’t care! Because in contribution, there is no better. And that’s all. And what happens is the faces light up.

And that is all…