A few weeks ago I finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Overall, I thought it was a well-written and honest account of the man and his life. There was plenty in the book that Steve Jobs would not like to read but to sugar coat or gloss-over the way Jobs was would be disingenuous. It would create a false representation of what it was about his personality that enabled him to take Apple from his parents’ California garage and turn it into one of the most valuable companies on the planet. In all honesty, he was often a real ass and would cut down people mercilessly, but the abuse often led to better results, better products, and people working together to do things they thought they could not do. It wasn’t always necessary to be so mean but that’s just the way he was. In the end, however, the good and bad aspects of his personality and management style were focused on one main goal: to create a company that would thrive and innovate a generation or two after he was gone. Isaacson quotes a long passage from Jobs near the end of the book, in the chapter called Legacy.
I hate it when people call themselves ‘entrepreneurs’ when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will stand for something a generation or two from now. That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money.”
It became apparent to me that his point about creating value and creating a company for the ages is akin to the larger sustainability movement, and about how we have to create a society for the ages.
With the advances in IT and other technologies, we are truly one world now. With some imagination, you can think of global society as a 7 billion person company with each country a division – led by a president or a “CEO” – a part of the whole. You can stretch the metaphor further but indulge me on this overall proposition for a moment. All of us are workers in that company. We get hired and are fired and live a life of demotions and promotions as we figure out what it is we are actually doing and/or supposed to be doing while we are here on earth. Some of us excel more than others. Some of us change jobs or switch divisions but we all remain in the same company. The contributions that we make are often lost within the sheer size of the enterprise, but they have – even in their smallest degrees – an effect on the business of human society. Collectively, we try to make the world function better. We create time saving inventions and disease eradicating vaccines. We try new forms of government and refine the ones we already have. We try to push the human race forward; to improve, to progress. Sometimes we don’t do so well. We fight wars and act out all forms of destructive behavior. Rogue employees try to overthrow the board, sometimes succeeding. Bad leaders have pushed the world near bankruptcy (sticking with the metaphor of global society as a company) both literally and figuratively numerous times; right to the edge. But so far, the human enterprise has come roaring back. A bad leader or system is thrown out when the “stockholders” revolt.
Global society adapts to changing conditions in order to sustain itself; in order to survive. But for it to truly live on, it must become sustainable. The human experiment must not just be about hedonism or wealth, mastery over nature, disregard for all that has come before us or, indeed, disregard for all that will come after. Nor should we disregard or abuse all the plentiful resources around us which we use to live, prosper, and invent. Rather, it’s about creating something that will last for generations after we are gone. It’s not easy. It means we have to stop living how we’ve been living. It means throwing away the old for the new. It means changing our behavior. To go back to Jobs,
You always have to keep pushing to innovate. Dylan could have sung protest songs forever and probably made a lot of money, but he didn’t. He had to move on, and when he did, by going electric in 1965, he alienated a lot of people. His 1966 Europe tour was his greatest. He would come on and do a set of acoustic guitar, and the audiences loved him. Then he brought out what became the band, and they would do an electric set, and the audience sometimes booed. [...] The Beatles were the same way. The kept evolving, moving, refining their art. That’s what I’ve always tried to do – keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.
We can’t remain here in the status quo. We need to change our infrastructure, our relationship with energy, and even the very forms of energy that we use. Our company, our human enterprise, needs to innovate and to move forward. Otherwise, it will become unable to function in our limited world. We need to find other methods of growth and other measures to chart that growth.
In order to build a society that will stand for something a generation or two from now – just like Jobs hopes he built a company to last – we need to create a society to last. We can’t do that unless we create a sustainable one.