A Tribute to a ‘Stealth Stoic’: Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

By now, virtually everyone in the developed world has heard the sad news about the death of Apple co-founder and technology visionary, Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs, in many ways, was an inspirational person that I greatly respected. In fact, I have him to thank for the fact that I’m typing on an iMac right now.

Before reading any further, I strongly urge you to watch the commercial below, narrated by Mr. Jobs himself. This commercial never aired and many people have never seen it. In a nutshell, it explains how Steve Jobs looked at the world and the purpose of business.

Anyway, I’m not going to wax elegiac here (although my deepest condolences go out to Mr. Jobs’ family and close friends), but rather, I’m going to write about a man who was a stealth Stoic; a man whose stealth Stoicism I greatly admired. I’ve searched extensively to try and find out if Mr. Jobs ever made any claim to being a Stoic, but I came up empty handed. As such, I can only speculate that Mr. Jobs was a stealth Stoic (or maybe he didn’t even realize he was one).

At this point, you be wondering: what exactly is a stealth Stoic? A stealth Stoic is one who stealthily and quietly practices a brand of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy called Stoicism. A stealth Stoic, however, is not the same as a ‘stealth stoic’ (if you’re looking for a primer on Stoicism, check out my review of Dr. William B. Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life on The Politics of Well-Being).

I rarely tell people (unless they ask) that I am a practicing Stoic. Although, when I do, most people look at me funny. “Why would you want to practice enduring pain or hardship without showing your feelings or complaining?” or “Is that some sort of weird religion?” they will ask. If the person is truly curious, I will go on to tell them that Stoicism is not about enduring pain without emotion and that it is not a religion either, but rather, a philosophy of life.

According to the great Stoic teacher, Dr. Irvine, “Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease.” And it’s a cure for a disease that plagues all humans, i.e., the fact that we have insatiable desires that cause us unnecessary unhappiness. In other words, we are all stuck running on a hedonic treadmill.

Furthermore, all of us share a similar fate as well, i.e., death. Yes, this is obvious, but it is also scary to think about. And because it’s scary, many choose to ignore it and are in great danger of wasting their one and only life (time is not a renewable resource). I think Mr. Jobs, however, would have urged us to avoid sinking into an existential crisis when thinking about our fate. Rather, I think he would have reminded us of some Stoical sage-like advice about how to deal with this fact that death is inevitable. “Look in the mirror everyday and ask, “if today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am doing today?” If the answer is no for many days in a row, you need to change something. Remembering you are going to die is the most important tool to make big decisions in life, everything falls away in the face of death. External expectations, pride, fear of embarrassment or failure are all things that don’t matter in the big picture. Remembering you are going to die is the best way to remember you have nothing to lose. “You are already naked, you have nothing to lose by following you heart.” [1]

Much of what I know about Mr. Jobs’ life-philosophy echoes the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. These ancient Stoics provided us with advice on how to deal with insults, how to overcome grief, how to avoid getting angry, and how to take delight in our beautiful world. Stoics, like Mr. Jobs, certainly did not glorify a life void of emotion, but rather one, that minimized negative and destructive emotions.

Well Mr. Jobs, I think you pushed the human-race forward. You were indeed crazy enough to think that you could change the world. And you did! You were a visionary and an inspiration to oh so many people. You were also a stealth Stoic and have helped me, and countless others, to “Think different”; thank you for that! Rest in peace, Steve Jobs.

[1] This quote is from a commencement speech Mr. Jobs gave in 2005 at Stanford University (the video is below).