Steve Jobs, Inspiration, and Why I Write

Steve Jobs’ retirement from Apple has affected me emotionally more than I would have imagined had I considered it. Jobs was inspirational to me in my prime years of youthful enthusiasm, before my passion faded in the face of life’s standard set-backs.

Job’s Commencement Address at Stanford in 2005 was a powerful speech, with its three-part message of: connect the dots of your life in retrospect, when you can see where you have travelled and find the pattern your life has made; find what you love and do it; and live knowing that death is coming soon. I’ll refer back to the speech later, but he gave it decades after he was most inspirational to me.

Back in 1984, due to my father’s job as Director of the computing center at Dartmouth College, we were one of the first families to have a Macintosh. We had it so early that the orthopaedic surgeon treating my brother’s broken heels made special house calls just to get a chance to see the computer. I think our first one was actually a pre-release machine. They certainly hadn’t solved the heat issues on ours, because I remember it over-heating and melting down spectacularly on my father’s wooden roll-top desk. The next one had a better fan.

I frequently tested new computers and terminals that my father was thinking of purchasing for the Dartmouth students, but the Macintosh was special. It was the first computer I used as a tool for creating art rather than for programming.

The sales technique Jobs used in those early days had the same flair he later showed at major product announcements. According to my father, he and several other potential purchasers at universities were invited to see the new machines. When they got to the meeting, the computers were still in their boxes, not unpacked for the demonstration. Jobs left the room to get coffee for everyone and was gone for long enough that the invitees dug the machines out of the boxes, set them up, and had them running before he got back. Bingo, point made – these machines are easy for anyone to use.

I was a fan – of the machines, of his sales technique, and, later, of his impact on the aesthetics of computing.

I met him once when I was in high-school. He came to Carnegie Mellon as part of his marketing for the NeXT computer. By then, I had given up programming and was only interested in computers as tools, but I loved the NeXT. In my case, the love was premised almost entirely on the aesthetic pleasure I got from looking at it. Seriously, the elegant black cube was far more important to me than the way cool operating system, though I knew enough to be impressed by that, too.

In any case, I got an invitation to attend a small reception for him. It was a big deal for me. I was the only high school student in attendance – everybody else was associated with Carnegie Mellon as an employee or an engineering student. I no longer remember the details of that evening, but I treasured the NeXT t-shirt he signed for me for years. “Let’s go change the world!” he had written. And for years, I just knew I would.

But then, I didn’t.

And now I am a week away from my 40th birthday, assessing my life as I approach this milestone, and I hear that this hero from my idealistic youth is retiring – mostly likely because he is dying. In Steve Jobs’ mortality, I see my own.

And, thinking about it, I realize I have been following the advice he gave in the middle third of his Stanford commencement speech for decades and have only recently begun to pay attention to the beginning and the end. I have been searching for work I love, where I can make a difference in the world that matters to me emotionally, where the many strengths I have can meet a need in the world, where I can feel good about my efforts to change the world, because I do still want to make the world a better place.

And, I have discovered that what I love is not a thing, not a kind of action, but two kinds of people. I love and care deeply about gifted children who are being failed by the educational system, especially gifted girls and gifted students with learning disabilities, and I suffer with adults who have lost their joy in life and become overly serious.

I have realized, connecting the dots in retrospect, that my life has been circling around these two populations and bringing me to a place where I feel I can help. InterPlay is a sneaky-deep way of bringing fun and joy into life, even the tough parts of life, and is safe enough to be inviting for recovering serious people. The practices of InterPlay also provide opportunities for people who are not being heard to have their voices and tell their stories – opportunities desperately needed by children and families who are not served by the modern models of education. These are the populations I am called to serve with InterPlay.

Even my fiction writing is in service to these people I love. As a child, I never felt more validated than I did when I found a character in a novel who mirrored my life experience. My goal in writing my novel is to tell a story that provides such a mirror for a girl who needs to know that her experience is not unique.

Faced with the combined force of my upcoming birthday and Steve Jobs’ retirement announcement, I am inspired to press on and do my work in the hope that I can change the world for the people I love. I am reminded once again that life is short and if I don’t do it today, it may never get done.


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on August 26, 2011, in Education, Interplay, This Writing Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. First, Kate, I so deeply appreciate your style.
    Second, I also like Apple products and thought the NeXT was the bees knees — look and tech!
    Third, while I hear what you’re saying and acknowledge your humility, I invite you to continue to look at the myriad ways you are doing so much good. I so adore your writing, motherhood, collegiality, inspiration and so much more.
    Rock on, sister!
    Playful blessings,

    • Kate Arms-Roberts


      There is a NeXT poster in one of the offices in the house I am in at the moment. Even the logo was cool.

      InterPlay has helped me to see is that changing the world can be done incrementally and to see ripples of influence as a form of deep change that may be hard to track. And, I do see that I have impact in that way, and I believe I am generally a force for positive change in that regard. As a teen, however, I definitely held dreams of being a mover and shaker on a bigger political scene. Some days, I have pangs of regret that my sphere of influence is not as large as I had dreamed it would be, but most days I know that I the paths that might have taken me there were paths I tried and rejected because they didn’t actually suit me.

  2. Once again articulating my own feelings about life (though in my case, not related to Steve Jobs). Thank you for sharing!

  3. Kate Arms-Roberts


    It means a lot to me that you read my writing regularly. Thank you for reading!


  4. Hi Kate, thanks for this beautiful post, great to have you back at the keyboard. First of all, happy pre-birthday. If it helps at all, I’ve found my 40s to be a rebirth (I just turned 43).

    My big shout-out to Jobs (who I do not have your connection with) is for stepping in with his checkbook and his vision and helping keep Pixar afloat in the early days. It’s a brilliant film company, and Jobs didn’t found it, but he ensured it could survive and play with the big boys.

    And I wasn’t too far behind you on the Mac. I got one of the first ones in 1985, with an external hard drive so I could run MacWrite in the computer itself and save my work on an external floppy (no swapping disks back and forth!). I loved MacPaint. And I used it all through college, carrying it around in that padded case that came with it (a portable computer, what a concept!) and wrote my senior thesis on it. I think I still have that padded case.

  5. Kate Arms-Roberts


    In a funny way, I am really glad to be 40, even if just barely. Sometime in my youth, I got a sense that it was going to take me until my 40s to figure out what my life was really about – and I do feel that the last few years have really honed my self-awareness and my sense of mission and purpose. I feel as confident and energized about the future now as I have ever done with a greater sense of direction.

    MacPaint turned me from a programmer into someone who used software to accomplish other tasks. I remember the feel of the mouse on the desk as I drew my first doodle and the thrill of seeing my movement turned into lines on the screen.

    And I agree with you about the money Jobs put into Pixar.


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