Steve Jobs Health, Forced Sabbaticals, and His Brilliance

“No one wants to die,” said Steve Jobs. “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.”

Those words are from a famous keynote Steve gave at Stanford in 2005, nearly a year after his brush with cancer. It is well worth a listen to for it’s inspiring message of Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish (text version). A message that Steve says he wishes for himself and perhaps one he now is forced to live by.

Last week on Jan 17, 2011 Steve announced that he is taking a medical leave of absence from Apple. This is his third medical leave, with the previous two for removal of cancerous tumor and a liver transplant. One can only guess what painful problem the man is facing now. You could also guess how this changes a person, what it does to you. Facing death and triumphant returns over and over. It got me thinking what Steve has accomplished after each of these bouts with death.

To uncover this I did a little research and the story starts on July 9, 1997, when Steve was named interim-CEO of Apple. It was the first of his triumphant returns. Twelve years earlier he had been forced out of the company and watched it slowly turn into a disaster. Facing crippling financial losses, record low stock prices, and even a denouncement from Michael Dell, “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

Then in 1997, an acquisition brought Steve back into the company and he quickly took the reigns as CEO. Not long after things starting happening like small tectonic shifts. Three major products were announced and soon the world was dramatically altered:

  • 1998 – iMac
  • 2001 – iPod
  • 2003 – iTunes Store

All three were huge successes and quickly put Apple back on top. The iPod sold over 100 million units, the iTunes Store sold over 10 billion songs, and the iMac breathed life back into their computers. Together they brought the company back to profitability and, individually, they revolutionized computers, consumer electronics, and music.

Then in July of 2004, Steve was again forced to leave Apple, this time due to a cancerous tumor. After having it removed via the  Whipple procedure, Steve triumphantly returned and released the following:

  • 2005-06 – MacBook
  • 2007 – iPhone
  • 2008 – App store

Three even more successful products. Each one revolutionizing laptops, mobile phones, and, for the app store, creating a whole new paradigm. At this point the company was on the move with the stock price catapulting and revenues soaring.

Then, in 2009, Steve’s third forced sabbatical hit. This time it was a liver transplant, a common ailment arising from the Whipple procedure. Upon returning he released the:

  • 2010 – iPad

Another extremely successful product which appears to be revolutionizing computer operating systems and the entire computer industry.

This takes us back to the present day and the announcement of Steve’s fourth sabbatical. To which many are predicting not a another leave of absence but a final departure into the sunset. After all, Tim Cook is at the helm as he has been in the two previous sabbaticals. Plus, Steve has no need to keep going since he has already accomplished so much and left the company in such a profitable condition.

I can see that happening, but I can also imagine another possibility. One that is in line with the “stay hungry, stay foolish” mantra. Is it possible that Steve has come to love these vacations?

I mean look at what he has accomplished after each one, not even a delay in success or a few years for the product “to hit.” The gratification is so instant it’s like a perfect test for Dr. Pavlov.

I’m not being callous about his health either. Pancreatic cancer is one of those rare, one-in-a-million forms that is completely curable. Most patients are known to have perfectly normal, healthy lives nearly indistinguishable from any other patient. However, there can be complications like liver failure, and this latest medical leave means something else is wrong.

All of these are painful problems and I empathize for Steve, but it does point out that he could likely be poised for another triumphant return.

Why not? Sabbaticals exist for this very reason. Leave at a point of high success and/or anxiety to recover and recoup. It’s a time honored tradition that is too often derided by others. Our community spirit says to work, work to death.

In some ways the move is inspiring. A CEO taking off time to improve his health, be with his family, and then return to change the world.

That is awesome. How many other examples like that do we have?

Have you ever taken a sabbatical?

What would it take for you to take some time off and recoup?

Photo by Peter Denton

7 thoughts on “Steve Jobs Health, Forced Sabbaticals, and His Brilliance

  1. I took a year off university for cancer treatment, interrupting my final year; returned more energetic than ever and got a 1st. Extraordinarily insignificant on the objective scale, and I can’t say the cancer improved my life but the time to think was fantastic. Taking stock is underrated.

  2. As a result, his parenting time dwindled to half. And, now after years of not working outside the home, he’s forced to re-enter the job market during one of the worst unemployment periods in recent history. He hasn’t been able to find work nearby,

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