I interviewed Steve Jobs multiple times while a writer at Fortune magazine, but by far the most insightful — and most memorable — was the most informal. Maybe that’s because it turned out to be the last time in February of 2008. Or maybe it was because of the whales.
‘I love my family,’ Jobs told me. ‘And I come here every year. I want to be here. But it’s hard for me. I am always always thinking about Apple.’ It was obvious: Vacation was actually painful.
We spent the afternoon on the shoreline of Kona, Hawaii, where Jobs and his wife, Laurene, had vacationed each spring for more than two decades. As we ate lunch at a wooden picnic table — discussing everything from Reed College to the iPod — a pod of giant whales began to breach against the horizon. I didn’t see them at first. But Steve stopped mid-sentence — staring straight out to sea — his brow furrowed, as if trying to get his mind to shift from operating systems to whales.
The whales must not have been a common sight because others around us had stopped eating and begun exclaiming. “Wow, Steve,” I said. “Those are amazing whales. What kind are they?” He continued to gaze at the horizon and, as if in a trance, answered: “I don’t know … they are very, very big whales.”
Here was a man with a wife and four children (three of whom were splashing around in the resort’s swimming pool at the moment) who had come to this same spot in spring for 20-plus years and he didn’t have a clue that these were North Pacific humpbacks? “Wow, Steve,” I kidded him, “you must have somehow missed out on the Discovery Channel.”
I don’t know if he even heard me because he was already off whales and back to the world that obsessed him: how he had known he could make a phone that people fell in love with by stuffing it with the OS X operating system. Later on, he confirmed what the whales had told me. “Now turn that thing off,” he said, as I dutifully switched off my recorder. “I love my family,” he said. “And I come here every year. I want to be here. But it’s hard for me. I am always always thinking about Apple.”
It was obvious: Vacation was actually painful.
The fine line between madness and genius — that was Steve. For years, the press beat him up about the madness part. He was obsessive and compulsive. He could be tough on people. He was so focused, it was difficult for him to tolerate anything that got in his way. Another Silicon Valley soccer dad recalls that Steve sometimes came to games, but always stayed purposefully alone on the sidelines. If you tried to say hello, he wouldn’t acknowledge you. Maybe he didn’t hear you. Or maybe like with the whales, he shut you out.
Part of his extreme success was his extreme focus. He kept his world tight and his mind on track. For him, this wasn’t a chore but a passion. “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” he told me that day. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas there are. You have to pick carefully.”
It was during this walk that Steve first divulged that Apple never did market research. Apple didn’t do that, he said. It didn’t hire consultants. “We just want to make great products.” How did Apple do that? By looking at the world and envisioning what might be.
People hated their phones — Jobs was convinced Apple could rectify that. Remember how we once drove to record stores to buy our music? iTunes happened “because we [at Apple] all wanted to carry our music libraries around with us … We all wanted one,” he said. To his team, it was so obvious: Why peddle music the hard way when you can so much more easily transmit electrons? But market research? That would’ve just messed things up. “There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right?” he told me. “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘a faster horse.’”
Steve was hard on people. But those people had self-selected Apple. That was part of the company’s algorithm. Hire passionate people, hell-bent on breaking the mold and as obsessive and driven as he was. “When I hire somebody … the real issue for me is, are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, then everything will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve or anybody else.” His main job was to clear the way for them, he believed — and also to push them. “My job is not to be easy on people,” he said. “My job is to make them better.”
Until that day in Hawaii, I had always thought that Steve Jobs was the new Jack Welch. As we crunched through the sand and wound through palm trees — six months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the onset of the financial crisis and the malaise that still grips most of America’s big corporations, I realized I had the wrong analogy. Yes, Jack Welch had been the CEO of the prior decade. But Jack Welch’s measurement of success was earnings growth and share price. That short-term focus had run amok and gotten business in all kinds of trouble. Steve couldn’t care less about a Welch-era report card.
In the course of the afternoon, he laid out the prescription for doing business right: Forget Wall Street. Forget your stock price and even your bottom line. Focus on what business is all about: making a better mousetrap. Build cool products and the world will come. Hire passionate, driven people and they will find a way. Take risks. Make mistakes. Aim high. Put yourself on the line — not in the per-share targets you set, but in the ambitious products you promise — over and over again — to your customers. Do your job and do it well, and the bottom line, the stock price, and everything else will take care of itself.
Recently I sat by the ocean at my own family’s vacation spot, watching a sunset and suddenly, impulsively, did a surprising thing. I took out my phone and began videoing the scene — for my mother who couldn’t be there. As I sat with my phone pointed at the horizon, I was struck once again by the genius of Steve. I could capture not just the slow-motion sun as it lit up the sky, but the rush of waves and cries of gulls that would make the scene real for my mother and a living memory for the rest of us. And that was Steve’s true goal. “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, so every one should be really excellent,” he told me that day in Hawaii. “Life is brief and then you die, you know? This is what we’ve chosen to do with our life. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”
Some of the material in this post appeared previously in Fortune.