Being Fired?

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In Story #2 in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Jobs talked about the shock at being fired as CEO of Apple in 1985. He had co-founded the company. He had taken it from a garage enterprise to a major producer. Then he got sacked by his board.

In his speech, he neglected to identify the #1 source of Apple’s success: VisiCalc. That was the first “killer app.” The phrase came as a result of Visicalc’s success. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet.


It was developed by Dan Bricklin. He was a student at the Harvard Business School. Wikipedia provides the basic story.

Conceived by Dan Bricklin, refined by Bob Frankston, developed by their company Software Arts, and distributed by Personal Software in 1979 (later named VisiCorp) for the Apple II computer, it propelled the Apple from being a hobbyist’s toy to a useful tool for business. After the Apple II version, VisiCalc was also released for the Atari 8-bit family, the Commodore PET, TRS-80, and the IBM PC.

According to Bricklin, he was watching a professor at Harvard Business School create a financial model on a blackboard. When the professor found an error or wanted to change a parameter, he had to erase and rewrite a number of sequential entries in the table. Bricklin realized that he could replicate the process on a computer using an “electronic spreadsheet” to view results of underlying formulae.

Dan Bricklin is forgotten. VisiCalc is forgotten. It was replaced by a program called 1-2-3, which was in turn replaced by Microsoft Excel. But, in its day, VisiCalc gave Apple II the edge over Radio Shack’s TRS-80. It was the first business software application that was perceived as crucial. Businessmen bought Apple II computers in order to use VisiCalc.

That was a far more crucial dot in Steve Jobs’ career than calligraphy ever was. It was dropped into his lap as a free bonus. It had nothing to do with Jobs’ aesthetic sense. It was a series of boxes on a screen into which people typed numbers.

I call this providential. Jobs preferred to call such events “your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” He did not see life as a silver platter, but nonetheless a platter. “This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Bricklin handed him a windfall in 1980. He made good use of it.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired.

This is a remarkable story. It is a rags-to-riches story. It is the stuff of dreams in America as in no other society in history. It will be told over and over. And he was correct: it had two parts. The day he was fired ended part 1.

How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.


This was the conflict between the visionary and the bean-counter. This is inescapable. The bean-counter represents the conflict. They provide the beans. Without them, the visionary sleeps on the floors of friends. The beans are the whips by which the real Simon Legrees in life — customers — flagellate producers who do not perform to their satisfaction. The lifetime refrain of the customer is this: “What have you done for me lately?”

The producer can produce no more than what the supply of beans will allow. He can borrow more beans in terms of a projected stream of beans. He can cut costs and hoard beans. But he cannot escape the restraints of beans. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The visionary thinks that his product cannot fail to please customers in the future. The bean-counter says, “Prove it.” But the visionary cannot prove it. That is why we call him a visionary.

Jobs in 2005 still regarded the Macintosh as Apple’s greatest product. That was because it was aesthetically neat. It was his calligraphy. He failed to mention the ill-fated Apple III, which could not compete with the PC-AT 286 or the Intel 386 chip that was in Compaqs. Apple was losing ground where the beans were: businesses. He was still trying to sell to artists. The bean-counter reminded him: the phrase “starving artist” reflects reality. The Macintosh was a poor business computer. Jobs had to go. If I had been on the board, I would have voted to fire him.

It was the best thing that ever happened to him, he reflected in his speech. It was also a great thing for customers.

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

NeXT set a high standard, but it did not affect the lives of the masses. Pixar did. The inner calligrapher of Steve Jobs found an outlet. He pursued both sides of his brain: the digital precision of NeXT code and the animation of Pixar. He told stories with digits.

In 1993, I visited a professor of computer science at Texas A&M. I had walked into his office unannounced on a Saturday with my son, who was ready for his junior year of college. He told us this:

The typical user’s manual in the microcomputer field has on average one error per page. I do not mean typographical errors. I mean procedural errors. The only exceptions are the manuals produced by NeXT. There are no errors.

Jobs was a perfectionist. It took success outside of Apple to let him exercise his artistic skills alongside his digital skills. He became the Jedi master of the right-brain/left-brain synthesis. He got even richer.

Jobs told the audience:

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.

A door had closed. Two more opened across the street. One of the familiar themes in the book, The Millionaire Next Door, is the rags-riches-rags-greater riches theme. They often go bankrupt. They recover.

Venture capitalists look for entrepreneurs who have gone through a bankruptcy. They want to see how a man recovers. A string of successes does not provide information on how well the man will perform under adversity with their money.

He sought counsel. It was high-level counsel.

I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down — that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

He rebounded. This was a time of testing. But, in saying this, I am saying that the testing was personal. The counselors were personal: very rich, successful men in Silicon Valley. His rebound was personal.

But what of the test itself? What about the connection between the chronological dots? Was there anyone administering the test? Here, he was silent.

He then added: “Don’t lose faith.” He did not elaborate. The inescapable question is this: “Faith in what?” He then went into cheerleading mode: “Follow your dream.”


He had faith in himself. He wanted his listeners to have faith in themselves.

I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

He told this to students who were getting their certification papers at an expensive university, one that is usually listed in the top ten in the United States. It is one of about three dozen universities attended by a third of the world’s richest and most powerful people. (Read David Rothkopf’s book, Superclass, or watch his videos delivered at Stanford.)

“Don’t settle.” This is nonsense. It is outrageous nonsense. Of course you settle. For 80% of your life, you settle. It is that other 20% where you make your mark. You devote 80% of your time to putting food on the table. You devote the other 20% of your work day to that area of your life that I call the calling: the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace.

If you have faith, and if the object of yourfaith delivers the goods, then you can move from 80-20 to 20-80. You can spend 80% of your time on your calling. This rarely comes when you are young.

Jobs was a rarity. He found his calling three times: in delivering a tool that ran VisiCalc, in developing Pixar, and in developing the iPod/iPad tools that make other people’s apps — none killer so far — available to customers. He produced the platforms that made individual programmers efficient in delivering their goods to customers.

He spoke as if he were normal. He was not normal. That was why he was asked to speak.

He spoke as if he had not been the recipient of a series of opportunities to serve as a middleman in between others and customers. He delivered the goods that let others deliver their goods. He got rich and famous by doing this.

Life is filled with grunt work. Most work is grunt work. Unless someone promotes the idea of an elite of producers who hire workers who do all of the grunt work, he had better learn to do great grunt work. The 80% of life that is grunt work is what allows the 20% of good work to be possible, and the 4% of top quality work to change the world.

Garage work is grunt work. Grunt work is basic to all work.

The free market lets us sort out our grunt work from great work. Customers pay for the output of our grunt work, but demand ever-better work. We decide how to allocate our work.

Jesus had three years of preaching, beginning around age 30. The previous 20 years had been mainly grunt work. He knew his Torah, as we read in Luke 2:41-5. This is the only reference to the years in between the birth and ministry of Jesus. He was a carpenter’s apprentice for much of the time, then a carpenter. Carpentry is grunt work. He settled. But not forever.


Steve Jobs did not live a charmed life. He lived a representative life of highly successful people. He was adopted by the right family. He went to the right college. He dropped out of the right college. He was aided by the right people. He found the right partner: Wozniak, who was a technician, not a publicity hound and not a controlling type. He got fired for the right reason at the right time. He walked away a multimillionaire. He rebounded.

He followed his dream. He helped change the world by giving tools to people: producers and consumers. At Pixar, he became a middleman between story tellers and story lovers. He lived his life as a middleman.

We all do. Here is the bedrock truth: we are all middlemen. We buy low and sell high in some market. We find customers to serve. Some do this better than others. A few do it magnificently. Jobs was one of the few.

He did not settle in life. But in one area, we all must settle. That was the theme of Story #3.

October 20, 2011

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.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North