During his stint as Apple CEO, Tim Cook has repeatedly credited his predecessor, Steve Jobs. But he’s also worked to make Apple into a company that doesn’t slavishly follow the path laid out by Jobs. This is most clearly seen by Cook’s doubling down on privacy, and push to embrace social causes such as LGBT rights.
That mixture was on display Sunday, when Cook delivered a commencement speech at Stanford University. In doing so, he paid homage to the legendary June 2005 Stanford address delivered by Steve, while putting his own stamp on things.
Three act structure
Steve Jobs gave plenty of keynote addresses during his career. But he only gave one commencement speech, and he used it to share private stories about his life that he rarely discussed elsewhere. These included his thoughts on being adopted, his cancer diagnosis, and the pain of being kicked out of Apple in the mid-1980s.
To help write his speech, Jobs called in Aaron Sorkin, who years later wrote the screenplay for the movie Steve Jobs. I don’t know whether it was Sorkin or not, but the commencement speech has a three-act structure, much like a Hollywood movie. As such, Jobs divided the speech up into three stories.
He started by talking about learning calligraphy at Reed College and how this eventually helped bring fonts to the Mac. He then described starting Apple and having it taken away from him. Finally, Jobs talked about death, revealed his cancer diagnosis (telling the audience it had been cured), and talked about making the most of your time on Earth.
Despite having given, by this point, plenty more commencement addresses than Jobs, Tim Cook followed this same layout. But he also put his own twist on things.
Use technology for good
When fonts appeared on the Mac, it was part of an effort to transform the way that people thought about computers. Apple was founded in the 1970s, at a time when lots of people still considered computers to be dystopian tools belonging to the military-industrial complex. Apple set out to make them friendly — and fonts were one small part of that.
Today, Cook picked up on this same theme by discussing humanity in Silicon Valley. He started by talking about how tech had let people down. He said:
“Fueled by caffeine and code, optimism and idealism, conviction and creativity, generations of Stanford graduates (and dropouts) have used technology to remake our society. But I think you would agree that, lately, the results haven’t been neat or straightforward.
In just the four years that you’ve been here at the Farm, things feel like they have taken a sharp turn. Crisis has tempered optimism. Consequences have challenged idealism. And reality has shaken blind faith.”
Cook singled out data breaches, privacy violations, and fake news. (All things Apple has worked to battle in recent years.) In doing so, he talks about the downsides of tech every bit as much as the upsides.
He then says that people should seek to build technology in a human way. “Because if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that technology doesn’t change who we are, it magnifies who we are, the good and the bad,” he said.
Elsewhere, he notes that, “Taking responsibility means having the courage to think things through.”
Recovering from loss
Steve Jobs talked about having Apple taken from him, and having to rebuild. Cook takes a broader view of loss, referring to the loss of privacy.
“There are few areas where this is more important than privacy. If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold, or even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data. We lose the freedom to be human …
In a world without digital privacy, even if you have done nothing wrong other than think differently, you begin to censor yourself. Not entirely at first. Just a little, bit by bit. To risk less. To hope less. To imagine less. To dare less. To create less. To try less. To talk less. To think less. The chilling effect of digital surveillance is profound, and it touches everything.”
He then described how people should seek to build a better world: not just in tech but more broadly. He referred to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, in which LGBT protestors fought back against the police.
The impact of death
The part of the speech which most obviously mirrors Jobs’ is the latest section. Jobs talked about living life on his own terms, knowing that death was an eventual inevitability for us all. Poignantly, Cook discussed death as well — with Steve Jobs’ death being the one in question.
“When Steve got sick, I had hardwired my thinking to the belief that he would get better. I not only thought he would hold on, I was convinced, down to my core, that he’d still be guiding Apple long after I, myself, was gone. Then, one day, he called me over to his house and told me that it wasn’t going to be that way. Even then, I was convinced he would stay on as chairman. That he’d step back from the day to day but always be there as a sounding board.
But there was no reason to believe that. I never should have thought it. The facts were all there. And when he was gone, truly gone, I learned the real, visceral difference between preparation and readiness. It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life.”
In the aftermath, Cook talks about how he had to try and continue Apple as Jobs’ successor. He says that, rather than trying to copy Jobs, he focused on doing what he thought was best for Apple.
“I knew that if you got out of bed every morning and set your watch by what other people expect or demand, it’ll drive you crazy … Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life. Don’t try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else, contorting into a shape that doesn’t fit.”
This very closely mirrors Jobs’ own thoughts on the topic. During Jobs’ Stanford speech he said that, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” He also described death as “life’s change agent.” Cook’s story underlines this idea.
Toward the end of his speech, Cook said that:
“14 years ago, Steve stood on this stage and told your predecessors: ‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.’ Here’s my corollary: ‘Your mentors may leave you prepared, but they can’t leave you ready.'”
To me, this sums up the talk. It’s Cook paying respect to his predecessor, but adding his own spin. He’s kept Apple true to its ideals, but made it into a company that is able to deal with some of the unique challenges of 2019. Given that Jobs wanted Apple to keep thriving after he was no longer around, I can’t help but think he’d be pleased with that description.