Steve Jobs as Moral Giant

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Sometime in 2004, a Stanford University official compiled a list of potential speakers for the 2005 graduation speech. Every college goes through this exercise. The ideal candidate has these characteristics: (1) rich. (2) famous, (3) not a college graduate, (4) a good speaker, (5) available; (6) cheap.

Why these characteristics? (1) He might give a large donation. (2) Fame justifies offering the invitation, and it will impress the alumni, who may give donations. (3) The speaker may be so impressed with the invitation that he will accept it. (4) He will not make a fool of himself and therefore the university. (5) He will show up. (6) Self-evident.

The official narrowed down the list and sent it up the chain of command. Steve Jobs’ name was on the list. Someone high up in the chain persuaded the president of Stanford to send Jobs an invitation. Entrepreneurially speaking, this turned out to be one of the greatest decisions in commencement speech history.

Jobs competently delivered a great speech. It was arguably the greatest commencement speech ever. It is surely the most viewed commencement speech ever. The Stanford University version has had almost 11 million hits on YouTube. Another version has had over 6 million hits. It was posted by someone identifying himself – I presume “himself” – as peestandingup, and this act of posting is probably the most significant thing that Mr. Up will ever do.

The video is 15 minutes long, which is just about right for a commencement address.

Printed out, it is two and a half pages long. Again, this is just right. You can read it in a few minutes.

It had three points. These were three very relevant points, especially for a group of several thousand graduates of one of the world’s most prestigious and expensive universities.

His introduction to his speech was flawless on paper. In delivering it, he had a brief case of the “uhs,” but as soon as he got rolling, they disappeared. Here is how he began.

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

With these words, he followed the standard protocol for a commencement address. (1) He congratulated them for having survived the intellectual ordeal of college. (2) He congratulated their parents for having survived the financial ordeal of college. (3) He played humble when in fact he was more accomplished than any of them will ever be. (4) He offered what every graduating audience wants to hear: a few brief stories that might possibly be relevant in their lives.

I begin where he did: with Story #1. He announced: “The first story is about connecting the dots.”


“I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit.”

He began his career with the same decision that two other titans of the microcomputer era also made: dropping out in their first year of college and never going back. Bill Gates did this. So did Michael Dell.

His story was different. He was an adopted child. His biological mother had wanted the adopting parents to be college graduates. His were not. They got her to sign the papers by promising to send him to college. He chose the wrong college. “But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it.”

He cared about his parents, or so he implies. In any case, he quit. Had he gone to a community college and then to a tax-funded, low-tuition university, he might have graduated. He would have gone on to achieve conventional things in a better-than-average way. We would never have heard of him. I say this as a Calvinist who believes in predestination. He would have agreed with me. His first story is about providence. He just did not believe in God.

He remained at Reed, taking advantage of a course that hardly anyone could use: calligraphy.

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.

That some Reed College parents were paying a fortune to have their children study calligraphy is typical of higher education, which quietly and unofficially sells itself as necessary for success in the world and then indulges its faculty members, who get paid well for teaching non-practical courses.

Jobs fooled them. He made the course practical. But not at first. Calligraphy was to prove crucial later on in his career.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

As a speaker, Jobs achieved what few speakers ever achieve in a major speech. He provided a hook on which the listeners could hang their hats. This was not just a key word. It was a key example. It let the audience have a mental picture to reinforce a verbal argument. This is very hard for a speaker to do, I assure you. Calligraphy illustrated a point – the central point in Story 1.



Here, Jobs came to the crucial issue: the meaning of life. To understand life, you must connect the dots. By this he meant the chronological facts that make up a life. Out of them come relevance. But we can see this relevance only in retrospect, he told the students emeriti.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

But why? Why should the dots have relevance? He took a seemingly peripheral set of dots – days spent studying calligraphy – and came up with retrospective meaning.

This retroactive assessment was imputed by Jobs to the chronological dots. But how relevant was this to the world at large? Did aesthetically pleasing type fonts really make a big difference in the coming of the microcomputer era? Could he prove this? I doubt it. But, in his life, aesthetics were crucial. He stood almost alone in this faith. He built Apple in terms of it. He got rich in terms of it: the fusion of technology with aesthetics.

I contend that type fonts are peripheral to computers generally. They are not useless, but they are peripheral. They are icing on the digital cake. I am typing this in Courier font, which looks more like a typewriter font than any other font. But I am well aware that aesthetics are not peripheral to Apple products. That is probably why I do not use Apple products. I prefer plain old text. I am a text man. I am a dinosaur with digits. I am typing this on a 1984 PC/AT keyboard. I have eight others just like it.

The computer engineer would say that Jobs liked calligraphy at age 18 because he was hard wired to appreciate aesthetics. The software programmer would say he was programmed. I say he was predestinated.

Jobs was fired by the board at Apple in 1985 because his aesthetics got ahead of the available low-cost technology. He was hired back in 1997 when technology had caught up. It took Apple stock at $5 a share and likely to head lower to persuade the board to swallow its pride and put him in charge again. They got rich because they did.

Jobs drew a conclusion in 2005. “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” For him, God was relegated to “whatever.” That was epistemologically appropriate for 21-year-olds who were about to graduate from Stanford. This is the prevailing epistemology of modern academia: God is “whatever.” He is not part of the curriculum, except as “whatever.”

God can be trusted as the whatever who resides in between life’s dots. He shares this undefined and undefinable kingdom with your gut, destiny, life, and karma. Problem: none of this is part of any curriculum at universities that charge $50,000 a year: tuition, room, board, and textbooks. Gut, destiny, life, karma, and whatever are extra-curricular activities, even off-campus-only activities – not in the same league as football games, keg parties, and that unique buddy system that modern campuses offer. (


Jobs’ discovery of calligraphy was made possible by the kindness of others.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5 deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

In following the dots of his days spent as what he called a drop-in, Jobs became a moocher. That is a pejorative term. He was a bum. A leech. He was absorbing free sleeping space, free food at the Hare Krishna temple, and free information as an auditor at a very expensive college.

In society, there is charity. Jobs was famous for not giving charity, yet his career path depended on it.

People let him mooch. They saw that he was not wasting his time, so they went out of their way to sustain him in his quest. He followed his dream. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. Whatever he achieved in life was the product of other people’s faith in him.

Why would anyone have faith in him? Why didn’t they say this? “Get a night job, Jobs. Pay your own way.” That was their prerogative. But they treated him more kindly, less demandingly. They cut him some slack.

They did what he never did in business relations. They did what he never did in private, as far as we know. If he gave away money in private, fine. His right hand did not know what his left hand was doing. I am willing to admit that he may have had a generous side. But he never publicly promoted charitable giving.

He barely perceived in his speech to those eager ex-students that his life was a gigantic contradiction. His success in business seemed to be based on words and actions that would have kept him from connecting the dots in his drop-in phase of life.

In this sense, Steve Jobs was one of the most morally blind, highly successful men in history. There have been self-consciously evil famous men. There have been power-seekers, wealth-seekers, and sex-seekers. The triumvirate of money, sex, and power have lured many men to their doom. But Jobs was different. He pursued the combination of aesthetics and high technology with a passion.

He connected digits in connecting his life’s dots. But he never honored the origin of those dots. They came from something other than his gut (instinct, intuition), destiny (impersonal), life (common), karma (impersonal). They came from the kindness of others.

By many accounts, Steve Jobs was a mean, ruthless SOB. He was the living incarnation of the opposite of those people who gave him his start in life, beginning with his parents, who sacrificed for his education.

That was the great tragedy of Steve Jobs. He was productive as few men ever are. He was driven internally – by what? – to serve customers well. As a driven man, he drove others. But at the start of his career were people who were not driven and who did not drive him. They let him follow his gut. They let him connect the dots at his leisure and their expense. Those forgotten people – unknown to us, but not by God – made possible his success.

Read the testimony again. Look for the central word.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5 deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

The central word is “I.” This was the paradox of Steve Jobs’ life. It was all “I,” yet to build up his own ego, he had to serve customers.


The free market made possible his economic success. The free society made possible his early life as a moocher. Voluntarism was at the heart of Steve Jobs’ success.

He absorbed others’ charity and returned the favor to others, not as charity, but as profit-seeking output. This economic system has made us all rich in the West, by any standard of pre-1850 comparison. As P. J. O’Rourke put it, “When you think of the good old days, think ‘dentistry.’”

The free market is a moral system, not because it makes men moral, but because it rewards those who serve others efficiently and penalizes those who don’t.

Steve Jobs’ personal characteristics in his economically productive years did not inspire the development of those virtues which had made his early years productive. In another economic system or social order, Steve Jobs would have made a first-class tyrant. He was far more Simon Legree than Uncle Tom. But the free market made him a giant. It let his customers make him rich. It also encouraged those who were under his verbal lash to keep on working to meet his standards.

His customers did not pay him to be nice. They paid him to deliver the goods, which he did. They did not feel his lash. They plugged and played and enjoyed the fonts.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll buy an iPad3. It had better allow the use of a PC/AT keyboard.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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