Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

The Favorite Child

Joe Paterno: You've Lots to Learn from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the unfavored child, has lots to teach Joe Paterno.

Posted Nov 14, 2011

Steve Jobs was clear: He was the unfavored child who was rejected by his first two sets of parents before finding a loving home. Having survived this early rejection, Jobs had a psychological basis to navigate his next profound rejection, being fired from Mac, the company he started. Those first years after the firing were difficult for Jobs but he emerged from them stronger then ever. He didn't give a darn about what people thought. He was more driven to pursue what he envisioned for himself. Fortunately, he had an internal moral compass that steered him.

When diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jobs didn't close his eyes and try to ignore truth. He didn't attempt to rewrite what was obvious. Jobs confronted his illness head-on while also preparing for his death. He fought for his life, surviving a liver transplant, while also insuring a succession plan at Apple. He continued to live his life privately but knew that upon his death, his life would be dissected and analyzed. So he did what Jobs did so well: He took charge.

Wanting his biography to be a truthful reflection of whom he was—the good, bad and ugly—Jobs contacted Walter Isaacson to write his life story. Isaacson reported that Jobs cooperated with the writing of the book. He was as honest and forth coming as only an unfavored child could be. There was no special status to be protected or coveted relationship to be maintained. Jobs made no attempt to spin his image, conceal his demons, or control what was written. He encouraged people he knew to speak as honestly with Isaacson. In providing this unvarnished, sometimes uncomplimentary view of Jobs, there is realness in Isaacson's representation of this American hero.

Steve Jobs lived his life as a man with nothing to lose. He understood that he was not particularly endearing to people and seemed relatively unencumbered by other people's needs or expectations. Jobs didn't expect preferential treatment. He learned painfully that rules applied to him. He described a process of checking in with himself daily to be sure he was living the life he wanted.

Joe "Joe Pa" Paterno, the favorite son of Penn State, lived his life in sharp contrast to Steve Jobs, the unfavorite son. Paterno's favorite son status depended on his making his admirers in the Penn State community feel good. His life was about pleasing them; in exchange he wrote his own ticket. Over time, Paterno lost his way, forgetting that rules—legal and moral—applied to him.

To the students and alumni of Penn State, Joe Paterno was the face of school spirit, a rallying point for their pride in the Nittany Lions. This football team was nationally respected; its players had winning records on the field and were academically strong. This combination of academics and athletics was admired universally.

Coach Paterno, a dean of college coaches, brought prestige to Penn State. He was revered as one of the all time great US college football coaches, winning countless national awards. His opinions swayed decisions on most matters of collegiate football. He reflected well on the university.

Paterno's fund raising abilities was a board of regents and president's dream. He raised money by example, contributing $4 million of his own money to Penn State. He delighted that the library was named in his honor while the sports arena was named after a former university president. This fed the image he and the university cherished—a football coach committed to academics.

By some estimates, Paterno raised over $1 billion for the school. He likened fund raising to recruiting athletes. He once said, "Sooner or later, you gotta ask the kid, ‘Are you coming or aren't you?' I don't see much difference. You make the case. And you say we'd like this, and sometimes they'd say, ‘Well, yeah, I can handle that.' Sometimes they'll say, ‘I can't do that right now. How about this?' That's fine."

In 1984, the university launched its first campaign, setting a $200 million goal—the highest target ever set by a public university at the time. It raised $352 million, largely attributable to Paterno's relationships with alumni and his charisma. In the capital campaign ending in 2003, Paterno encouraged the trustees to set $1 billion as the target. The campaign raised $1.4 billion. He is credited with Frank Pasquerilla's commitment of $5 million for the ethical and religious affairs center on the State College campus.

Joe Paterno seemed to thrive on the lauds heaped on him by Penn State, and the university benefited from his parleying success on the football field to the good of the greater college community. Over his 62 years on the Penn State coaching staff, 46 as head coach, he grew to believe that he made the rules, possibility forgetting that fundamental rules of moral conduct applied to him,too. He may have believed that if he overlooked issues that could reflect unfavorably on his beloved Penn State, he was doing the school a favor. He may have imagined that out of his power, he would be unchallenged, that others would follow suit. That unattractive issues would go away.

As the sex abuse scandal began to unfold, his response to the Penn State Board of Trustee showed a man unaccustomed to the rigors of accountability. Paterno took matters in to his own hands, indicating that he would resign at the conclusion of this season and devote the rest of his life doing everything he could to help the university. Further, he said that the Board of Trustees "should not spend a single minute discussing (my) status. They have far more important matters to address."

As a favorite son, Paterno may have grown to believe that he was entitled to call the shots without concern for consequences. The ensuing feelings of power, and possible fear of losing that power, may have left him blind to his moral responsibility to the abused boys, to his football players and coaches, to the university community, to all those who looked to him for leadership.

There is little question that Joe Paterno loved Penn State and Penn State loved him. This institutional adoration feeds institutional blindness which is necessary to preserve the arrangement: Joe Paterno made the Penn State community feel good and proud, and in return, the community gave him greater freedom to write and play by his own rules. Ultimately this arrangement - which over time holds the favorite son accountable for less and less—contributes to its tragic unraveling.

Joe Paterno's form of heroism is driven by his status of being the favorite son. In that role he learns that the key to success is to please others. This stands in sharp contrast to Steve Jobs' form of heroism that is based on being unfavored. In that role he learns that the key to success is to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. There is no one else to gratify. It is easier to maintain firm moral footing.

About the Author

Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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