Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Before Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs passed away yesterday, he gave us all a few unconventional gifts: a public battle with cancer that drove awareness of the health risks we all face, a fearless sense of innovation to inspire all who would take notice, and a rare appreciation for death itself. And while an uncommon outpouring of remembrance has already begun, I hope you will indulge me as I add one more column to the pile, as Jobs was the kind of rare individual whose vision and legacy were the kind that just about anybody would do well to reflect upon.

You don’t have to be an Apple cultist to appreciate Job’s achievements. (Although I might as well admit right now that I am an Apple loyalist of the first order. I think in my house there is an item from pretty much every product line Apple currently has. It has been that way since the beginning.) But Jobs’ work founding Apple, his ignominious departure from what he created, his time in the professional wilderness (when he founded Pixar, among other things), and his more-than-triumphant return are hallmarks of the kind of career very few will ever achieve. But that is not why he is great; they are just details, really.

What made him great was the fact that he created the kind of legacy that transcends death itself. His body is gone, but his spirit lives on in the lives of so many others. It is something we should all aspire to. Some achieve it more than others, and some do so with considerably less effort than others. But to leave a legacy, to leave ripples in the world behind you…that is the best thing we can do with our mortality. Jobs knew it. And he acted accordingly. I can think of no better way to live one’s life, really.

I am remembering Jobs here because the biggest lessons I take away from his achievements are things that I think translate directly to the life and health industry. The first and foremost among them is innovation. Jobs was, indeed, a visionary. He often got a lot of stick from my technophile friends who liked to point out that Jobs wasn’t a computer genius who invented things, he was just the fellow who got everybody else to buy into them. Perhaps. But history is replete with brilliant innovations that went nowhere and did nothing because people couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Jobs understood needs and what must be done to fill them. He understood what we needed that did not yet exist, and he had the courage to build those things in an industry and in a society where innovation is appreciated, but only to a point. And he kept doing it and kept doing it and kept doing it. Along the way, he delivered not just compelling products, and not just technologies that as a child I thought would only ever remain in the realm of science fiction, but he delivered things that shaped how people live their lives. Things that raised expectations of what people could actually do with each other. Things that were much bigger than a computer, or a laptop, or a music player or a phone.

Few industries ever reach the level of innovation that we see in Silicon Valley, even if they try to tell themselves otherwise. And to be fair, some industries do just fine and make huge contributions to humanity without a heck of a lot of change going on. (Evolution is not always necessary to be successful; just ask any shark.) But having said that, the insurance industry, which touts its own innovation every time a new product is rolled out, could still take a page from Jobs’ playbook. I remember some years ago as I pored through ISO’s various filings, how clear it was that the insurance industry, on both the P&C side and the L&H side, was afraid to innovate. New products were rarely that; they were very fine tweaks on already tried-and-true things, and only once they proved somewhat successful did the rest of the industry follow suit with very similar “innovations” that collectively showed that, alas, the industry really doesn’t like to innovate at all. That would be okay if the world’s insurance needs were being met. But anybody who follows life insurance numbers, to cite just one example, knows that they are not.

So far, the industry’s answer to low individual life numbers has been that the consumer needs to be better educated; if people only knew what life insurance could do for them, then they would surely buy it. I agree. But the other side of that, the one being ignored, is that nobody is developing that breakthrough life product that really changes people’s expectations on how their lives can be. Nobody has really tried to produce something really extraordinary on the life side to make people want to understand. There has not yet been a moment like Apple’s famous SuperBowl commercial in 1984 that not only announced the first Macintosh, but it put the world on notice that what it could expect was about to change.

Jobs also had a fairly public battle with cancer that at turns shocked, saddened and ultimately uplifted those who saw it. Some years ago, after a long public absence, Jobs appeared at an Apple product launch looking remarkably thin, it caused a stir among shareholders and stock analysts. It was not long after that the world knew what it could already see: Jobs had serious health problems that were not going to go away easily or quickly, if at all. It immediately brought up concerns about Apple itself. Anybody who remembers the Gil Amelio years will attest that the years when Jobs was ousted were lean ones indeed. I still bought Apple products, but it was clear that the fire had gone out of the belly in that company, and if things continued as they did, it would only be a matter of time before Apple found itself crushed by its own stagnancy. Jobs’ return to Apple revitalized the company in a way that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. And when his health faltered, the specter of Apple losing the ground it had regained drew a bright light not just on Jobs’ need for good succession planning, and on his efforts to maintain his health, but on everybody’s need to do the same.

Succession planning is a big part of what the life and health industry is all about. And while Jobs has done much to ensure that Apple will carry on in his absence, the truth is, we don’t really know yet if it will. It won’t be until that first product launch that features work done outside of Jobs’ direct influence that we will know if Apple really will have become something bigger than its creator. Hopefully it will. But whether it does or not, either outcome underscores that critical need for us all to understand our own mortal limits, and that we have an obligation to our work and to our loved ones to ensure to the best of our ability that our departure need not be such a crippling one. Every health battle and every succession challenge does this. But Jobs’ were very public ones with incredibly high stakes, and that alone made his challenges something that could educate, and indeed, inspire us all.

But for me, the most important lesson Jobs has taught me has been how he faced his own death. Death, he said when he made his famous Stanford commencement speech in 2005, is the best invention of life. It is that “change agent” that drives us to live life in a way that matters. Nothing quite brings clarity to one’s life like nearly losing it, as Jobs did with his first battle with pancreatic cancer, and he spent his remaining years—far fewer than they ought to have been—living the sentiments he told those Stanford graduates: to live without fear. Nobody wants to die, he said. But that doesn’t make death a bad thing. Anybody who has wrestled with the finality of life could take great comfort in such a philosophy, if only they could truly buy into it. Not everyone can. Death is, after all, a scary thing. But the more we can master our fear of it, the more we can actually live. Death begins long before our heart stops beating. It begins in that moment when we know we are going to die, and we stop doing things that would otherwise benefit us because of that knowledge.

The life and health industry is in the business of delivering certainty, that if we get sick or if we die, there are things in place that can make us better, or that can see to our families’ well-being. That sort of peace of mind delivers a kind of enormous solace that few industries can even attempt to do. It is one of the things that makes this industry so very special and so very important. And it is meant to do much what Jobs’ own outlook meant to do: to recognize death for what it is, and to make it a means of improving our lives rather than limiting them.

That is why I will miss Steve Jobs. He gave me that lesson to think upon. Too bad he had to die to do it.