In the film The Natural, a parable about redemption set inside the batter’s box, the heroine Iris Gaines tells the fallen slugger Roy Hobbs: “You know, I believe we have two lives. The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” The idea that we might have a second act is one of the distinguishing idiosyncrasies of the American mythos. In the final scene we get to recreate ourselves—to become new and improved—our greatest work of art.
Steve Jobs was ever a work in progress—a revisionary visionary. He always seemed to know the way but the destination kept moving. Like him. Like us. His life had multiple acts. First there was brilliant and brash wunderkind who liberated technology for the people. Then there was the fall from grace as his apple fell from the tree he had planted. Next was NeXt—black boxes, black turtlenecks and black eyes. Atonement followed with the apt turn of phrase: “You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity” and faith was restored. And when darkness had fallen on those who had turned him out, the prince returned to his ancestral home and brought light and prosperity to the land. We got it because that was our story, too. We were once young and bright, loved and left, lost and found, and now all the wiser. And we know what awaits us all at the end of that road. But as usual, Steve got there first.
He was a member of our ensemble. We took him with us when we helped grandma get her email or started our new venture or sent our eldest off to college. When he wasn’t in our movie we were in his. That was us sticking it to the man in the 1984 Super Bowl commercial. That was our kids silhouetted in neon playing air guitar to “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” while listening to a bar of Ivory Soap. That was our grandchildren learning to read while they rode to the undiscovered country on the magic tablet. It’s easy to forget that he was there until you listen to the soundtrack, look at the photos and watch the videos. Then you remember that he was always there in the background like an old friend.
We are still a nation of pilgrims in search of our next Youtopia. We met Steve Jobs on that road to somewhere. But he never gave us directions when asked. Instead he encouraged us to find our own way—to think different. Innovation is deviation. There is no map. We all make it up as we go along.
Maybe there is no there. Maybe it is our longing to recreate ourselves that moves us ever onward. Maybe the life we learn with IS the life we live with. Maybe we can learn from Steve Jobs that in the end our vision is always revision.
Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.