Putting A Dent In The Universe

Steve Jobs, creativity and death

I’m in a graveyard in Palo Alto, California. The sky overhead is cornflower blue. Wind rustles through surrounding oak trees. A squirrel trots out onto a tree branch and squints at me. It’s like nature is doing everything it can to emphasize the contrast between its own glorious aliveness and the utter deadness of the humans underfoot.

It’s not just the squirrel that is looking at me. A cemetery employee purrs past in a golf cart, giving me the once-over. I am an intruder. The etiquette of cemeteries is strange. You come here for funerals, at which you’re allowed to be sad and to contemplate mortality. The rest of the time, you’re supposed to be getting on with your life.

I look up at the oak trees again. I recognize them from a video posted on YouTube by an Italian man. Like me, he was here looking for the grave of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs died in 2011, of complications arising from pancreatic cancer. Now he’s somewhere around here, just a couple of miles from his house, in an unmarked grave in the Alta Mesa cemetery.

I remember watching the Daily Show on the day his death was announced.

“For him to die young seems so strange,” said Jon Stewart. “With other people of his magnitude, like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, you feel like we wrung everything out of them. They were old when they died. With Steve Jobs, you really got the sense… we’re not done with you yet.”

Looking at Alta Mesa’s barren grassy field, broken only by tarnished plaques and a couple of windswept bouquets, I wonder if Jobs would have ever got around to redesigning the death experience. I picture him at an Apple event, showing the tawdry gravestones that people use today, then unveiling his new paradigm: an obsidian slab with beautifully rounded corners, and a laser-polished chamfered edge. Available in black and space gray, with a screen that connects to the deceased’s iPhoto library.

But it was not to be. Jobs died before his time, and was buried here without any kind of gravestone. There was no Hunter S. Thompson send-off, with his ashes being blasted out of a cannon in a final fuck-you to the world. He didn’t even get a portion of his remains packed into a NASA rocket, like the guy who played Scotty on Star Trek.

According to a map of the gravesite I found on Quora, I’m now within ten yards of his resting place. I pause for a few moments, and stare at the squirrel.

As if being a stalker of Jobs’ gravesite wasn’t already creepy, I’m also carrying a copy of Playboy. I don’t think that there are any formal rules about bringing pornography to a graveyard, but I feel I’m breaking the spirit of the law.

In my defense, it’s a very special issue of Playboy: February 1985. Alongside a photo spread on the “Girls of Texas” and an article on “how to be cocksure,” it contains a 15,000 word interview with Steve Jobs, who is described as a “29-year-old zillionaire.”

Alta Mesa Memorial Park

At the time of the interview, Jobs was at his hubristic height: full of life, making mistakes left and right and not giving a shit. He had just launched the Macintosh, a visionary product that was nonetheless failing to defeat the IBM PC and its clone army. But Jobs admitted no weakness. He wore a bowtie that made him look like Pee Wee Herman’s cool older brother, and laughed off losing $250M of personal wealth in a year of Apple stock declines. By September of 1985, he would be kicked out of the company he’d founded.

He also said some poignant things. For example: “Death is the most wonderful invention of life. It purges the system of these old models that are obsolete.” OK, he was mainly talking about the Apple II, but it’s hard to read that next to somebody’s grave without getting a lump in your throat.

But the most lasting quote in the interview came when he was talking about the motivation of Apple employees: “We attract a different type of person… someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe.”

Jobs would go on to use the “Putting a dent in the universe” phrase many times, though he would later tweak it to “Putting a ding in the universe”. It’s an odd use of language. At first he sounds like someone who has rented a universe, and is now returning it to the agency, slightly damaged. “Here’s your universe. I’m sorry, I put a slight ding in it.”

But of course, he was talking about something grander. He was talking about immortality.

Credit: Danwri
“Death is the most wonderful invention of life. It purges the system of these old models that are obsolete.” — Steve Jobs

My pilgrimage to the cemetery is part of a quest I’ve been on for the last year, to try to better understand creativity.

Of all the things I’ve learned on this quest, the strangest is that our concept of creativity is so new. Don’t get me wrong: the word create (and it’s Latin antecedent, creo) has been around for a couple of millennia. But for almost all of that time, it was used in a religious context: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God created everything. Human artists just imitated his work. It was only after the Enlightenment that language gradually started to shift to allow for the fact that people might create stuff too.

The word “creativity” itself is even more recent — first used by British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in 1927. There are people alive today, who were born before the concept of creativity. In 2016, when everyone from CEOs to psychologists to educators seems fascinated by creativity, it’s easy to forget that this is a New Thing.

I’ve been wondering whether there is a connection between the decline of Western religion and the rise of creativity. For a fully paid-up Christian believer, the facts of existence are simple: live a humble and compassionate life on Earth, die, and then enjoy a blissful eternity in heaven. For those without faith, it’s a bleaker picture: live for a few decades, and then oblivion. As a chain-smoking French philosopher once said, life is just the flaring of a match in a darkened cell.

Steve Jobs rejected the Christian values he was raised with and searched for something else. He traveled to India, flirted with Hinduism, and then settled on Zen Buddhism. The practice influenced him, but there were clearly other forces at work. Buddhism is about acceptance of the world and your place within it. Jobs’ Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki instructed, “To live is enough.”

But his student wasn’t ready to just live, and accept his place in the indifferent universe. He wanted to put a ding in it.

I don’t believe that our culture’s obsession with creativity is just a desperate fight against mortality. There’s an optimism in there too — a belief that there is something exciting and new out there waiting to be discovered, something that helps us escape from bland routine. This belief is also a recent phenomenon, and Palo Alto is part of that story too. I’d reached Alta Mesa by bicycle, following a pedestrian path that snaked southeast down from the Stanford campus. Just before I reached the cemetery, I passed the sprawling giant Lego blocks of the VA hospital. It was in Palo Alto’s VA hospitals, in the late 50s and early 60s, that doctors ran medical trials exploring the use of LSD in the treatment of schizophrenia. One of their research subjects was the author Ken Kesey, who was so impressed by the drug that he popularized its use at the Acid Test events in San Francisco, and then drove around America in a brightly painted school bus full of tripping pranksters. In doing so, he helped catalyze a boom in the use of psychedelics as a means of exploration and consciousness-raising.

Steve Jobs became an acid enthusiast. He described taking LSD as “a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”

Like Obi Wan, Jesus, and Elvis, Steve Jobs has become even more powerful after his death. Now, instead of being a complicated and flawed human being, he is an icon of entrepreneurial drive. Managers are channeling Jobs, demanding impossible acts of will power from their employees. Meanwhile, investors worry about the epidemic of “founderitis,” a disease that causes start-up founders to believe too strongly in their own intuition and ignore input from others.

I think about Jon Stewart’s dismay over Jobs leaving too soon, and wonder whether, had he lived longer, he could have passed on more nuanced lessons in how to be successfully creative. Rather than validating those who yell at subordinates, he might have shared more of what he learned from LSD, India, and Buddhism. I sometimes worry that everyone got the memo about being driven, but missed the part about how to think different.

The leaves in the oak trees shiver with the wind. I came here looking for Steve Jobs, but his spirit doesn’t seem to be floating through the concrete mausoleums. I stash my 30-year-old copy of Playboy in my bag, and bike back past the VA Hospital towards downtown Palo Alto. I cross the train tracks at Alma, and take a right on Waverley Street, passing the house where Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011. He had lost consciousness the previous day. His sister, Mona Simpson, was there to record his final words.

They were “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Credit: Matthew Yohe