Wednesday, October 05, 2011

"Go ahead"

About a year ago, I was having a normal work day in Cupertino when I walked to Caffe Macs, Apple's main cafeteria, for a bite to eat. After perusing the day's lunch options, I decided to wait in line at the fish station, completely unaware that I was about to have a close encounter with Steve Jobs. The line was pretty short, about 3 people, so I pulled out my iPhone to catch up on tech news and read email while awaiting my turn. Out of the corner of my eye, a short man in a black turtleneck lined up behind me. I glanced back to see who it was, then did a Hollywood-style double take as I quickly realized that indeed, Steve Jobs was waiting behind me in a cafeteria line.

I panicked... should I get out of the way? say hi? bow down? I calmly turned back to my iPhone, pretending to keep reading email. It was common protocol to not make a big deal of Steve Jobs being in the cafeteria. During the years he was healthy, I would see him about once a month at Caffe Macs - often sitting down with Jony Ives for his lunch break. When anyone would see him, they might point him out to a friend or co-worker, but then play it cool. Steve Jobs didn't want to be treated like a rockstar or shake hands with random employees, he just wanted to each his lunch.

After a few minutes, which seemed like years, I was at the front of the line to get my all-important piece a fish. Without really thinking about it, I turned around and motioned to Steve to cut in front of me. After all, his time was approximately a billion times more valuable then mine, and I thought it would be a nice gesture to a man who will go down in the history books along with Carnegie, Edison, and Disney. A man whose persistent vision inspired tens of thousands of employees to work long hours and short weekends for years. A man who revolutionized industries by creating entirely new product categories. A man whose contributions to the consumer electronics arena will delight millions of customers for generations. And a man who wanted a piece of fish for lunch.

In an instant, Jobs declined and said "Go ahead". I couldn't believe it... here stood the legend himself; a man who was probably pondering what other industry Apple should revolutionize; but he wasn't about to take a spot ahead in line. I was first, and that was that.

I thought for half a second of insisting again for him to go in front of me, but alas, my tenure at Apple was not yet long enough to argue with Steve Jobs. So, I turned around, got my fish and didn't look back.

I know it's a simple story, and gives me no authority to say that I knew or really even met Steve Jobs, but it was my moment, my conversation - my two-word, fish-themed conversation with one of the greatest innovators of our time.

As I reflect on his life tonight, I would like to think that "go ahead", his two words to me, can serve as one of the many takeaways from his lifetime. He passionately loved his company, our products and our employees - but he also knew that his time would come. Steve would want all of us to celebrate his life instead of mourning our loss, and simply "go ahead" and make our own "ding in the universe". Here's a quote from his Stanford commencement speech in 2005:

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true."

It's a sad day, but celebrating Steve's life and his contributions to the world reminds all of us that we all have the capacity to change the world. After all, "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do":

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