Jobs or Family
Recently I read through the biography of Steve Jobs, authored by the wonderful Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute (as you may know, I have the deep honor of being a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and have had the unique pleasure of interacting with Walter over the past ten years, and greatly admire his ability to capture complex lives in written form). Walter takes the reader on a page-turning odyssey of the man Steve Jobs and the companies he created (Apple, Next, Pixar, and then Apple again). We are offered a rare glimpse into the life of one our generation’s most mythic figures.
As an owner back in 1986 of a first generation Mac , all the way to being the CEO of a company in 2012 developing a service running on the iOS platform, I did not need the biography to tell me that Steve Jobs had a gift for bringing technology to the masses. The question is, at what price? From the opening that Walter gives us into the life of Steve Jobs the man, not only the myth, I come away with a very bad taste in my mouth. While I knew that Jobs was a driven personality, it is only reading the book that I realize how much he sacrificed upon the alter of creating cool technology. As readers of the book or avid followers of Job “trivia” know, Steve Jobs the man fathered a child and then for almost ten years ignored that child, his daughter Lisa. Even after acknowledging her, and bringing her into his orbit, their relationship was not a happy one. While there are a few scenes in the book that tell us of Jobs ability to love family, you get the feeling that in the “family v. company” race there was never a doubt what would win.
My own father, who thank God is alive today and will remain so for many years to come, was one of the pioneers of the computer age, helping to create COBOL, building massive mainframe systems in the 60s and 70s, and helped create the forerunner of the internet in networks such as BITnet and Arpanet. But my father did not see the vision of a computer in every house that people like Steve Jobs (and of course Bill Gates) saw back in the 70s and 80s. My father felt that computers were tools, not toys. My father’s cohort were happy to leave computers in the hands of data processing centers, crunching difficult numbers in the pursuit of national defense, health systems, and in general making the world a better place, but from a “behind the scenes” paradigm. My father, before retiring to academia in 1970, created a start-up (yup, it’s in the blood) called Compumedic Controls, which harnessed powerful computing to help centralize medical records. Growing up my father was very present, although also very dedicated to his adopted persona of being a professor at a public university. And we (my sister and I) were very present in the professional life of my father (and mother, also an educator). He brought us to office many times, letting me play with the punch-card machines, teaching us basic programming skills. When my father had conferences, we often attended together with him and my mother. It was a lifestyle that treasured family, and integrated it into professional life. We did not feel a tension between the two paths, but rather an integrated approach to life.
No coincidence is it that Jobs adopted family name is all about the job, the workplace, the professional life – the side of oneself that is extremely ego driven. For Steve Jobs parents, their last name was a curiosity, for Steve it was destiny that the job would always come first, and would have primacy in his life. Isaacson does not tell us of a Steve Jobs lovingly showing off his kids at the office – what you hear about is a man cutting a family vacation short because of a defective antenna in the iPhone 4 (and not clear how cutting the vacation short helped that problem…). In fact, it was only reading the biography that I knew Jobs had kids at all! And this is one of the most high-profile tech leaders of the generation. I am not asking for people like Jobs to live out all of their life in the public eye – but on the other hand he was a role model, and along with great power comes great responsibility (as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben so eloquently told him).
I know it is not cool to speak ill of the dead, and so I prefer to take step back, and analyze the clash between Job[s] and family from a more removed and also personal point of view. As a serial entrepreneur, I am often faced with needing to choose between another hour (or three ) of work, or spending time with kids, raising them, together with my life partner, Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, and also wider family circle, community, and the world. As the father of seven children, ranging in age from ten months to 18 years, those demands on my time are a daily challenge. But it is a challenge I relish. I don’t think one can “do it all” if the job demands operating at a Jobsian level of intensity -- almost necessarily means family will lose out – and that is a terrible example to set for the world. For me, it actually taints the products that Jobs created, knowing they are the result of a philosophy that so prized work and professional pursuits above family and community. No wonder that Steve Jobs never engaged in social change and/or philanthropy. In fact it was Bill Gates who brought forth a much healthier and ethical approach, understanding that technology and business success should be used for tikkun olam, repairing the world. Even someone like Warren Buffet, who does not feel he personally can contribute with his own skillset to fixing the world, had loudly announced that the bulk of his wealth will go to repairing the world, and has urged others to do so.
Recently there has been a rash of a new type of program for entrepreneurs and start-ups called accelerators. There are several well-known programs in the US, including Techstars and YCombinator. In Israel we have some new ones as well, including the Elevator (where I am a mentor). These are wonderful jump-starts for an entrepreneur, and I know I would have benefited greatly 17 years ago had I started out my entrepreneurial career going through such a program – heck, I am sure I would benefit today. These programs, however, were set up with one “type” of entrepreneur in mind – one who comes with no strings attached, no responsibilities outside of their start-up. It is expected that they go “all in,” devoting all their energy to making the start-up work. Most of these accelerator programs are for a three-four month period, cramming together an MBA like education, the networking that normally would take years of conferences, and intense brainstorming on a 24/7 pace.
On the side one is expected to whip together at least a working prototype if not a launch able product. Oh, and the expectation of the accelerator is that you can drop everything and physically be where the accelerator is located. In the US this could mean getting on a plane and locating yourself thousands of miles from where you live (there are Techstars in Boulder, Seattle, Boston, and New York – so there are some geographic options…). No provision is made for family inclusion, or support. The cash invested in base on a per-founder “living expenses” model, or as one program calls it, “beer money.” What is someone with kids to do? Just pick up and leave the family for 3-4 months? I haven’t see any discussion in the blogosphere around this point. For me it is glaring.
I recently heard about a new program for Israeli start-ups to introduce them to the hard charging environment of Silicon Valley. The program literally picks up the leadership of start-ups and houses them in together Palo Alto for three months (in a group home in Palo Alto, sounds a lot like a frat house). In order to participate in the program the CEO must be present in Palo Alto for the full three months (I can understand why – I just see it from the viewpoint of an entrepreneur with a life beyond the start-up). The program is wonderful, just what is needed for newbie and experienced entrepreneurs. But why 3 months straight? Why not think in advance of the father or mother of young children, the CEO with a sick parent, or some other type of life responsibility. Do we really want to exclude all of these people from the best programs? And more importantly, the lack of exposure of these issues leaves a hole in the training of CEOs in the making, and perpetuates the Jobsian example of complete dedication to “the job.”
I reject the idea that it is either Job or Family. I believe you can “have it all”—but with different rules and expectations. It will not be perfect, and there will be moments where one or the other wins out. But three months of taking a break from life is beyond the pale, it exceeds the red lines. For some it may be workable – but for many not, placing a strain on family that cannot be morally justified by the potential success of a start-up (remember, 9 out of ten start-ups fail, even if accelerators have better stats, there remains a good chance the start-up will not succeed).
Where is the happy balance? I do not know how put my finger on the exact point along the spectrum. I just now that the life example of Steve Jobs is not the path to healthy family or soul. May he and his memory be blessed for the joy he did bring to the world, through Apple, Pixar, and then Apple again, and may we learn how to take the good and leave behind the not-so-good from the life lessons of Steve Jobs.