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Steve Jobs: From college dropout to tech visionary

Brandon Griggs
  • Steve Jobs has had arguably more impact than anyone on how we consume digital content
  • He dropped out of college after one semester and quit one of his first jobs to backpack in India
  • Jobs: "The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work"

(CNN) -- As Steve Jobs steps down as CEO at Apple -- perhaps the world's most valuable and admired company -- business and tech pundits are showering him with glowing appellations: Innovator. Visionary. Genius.

The skinny man in the black mock turtleneck, and the company he created, have had arguably more impact than anybody on how we consume content in the digital age.

"Steve Jobs is one of the great innovators in the history of modern capitalism," New York Times columnist Joe Nocera told CNN's Piers Morgan Wednesday night. "His intuition has been phenomenal over the years."

But four decades ago, you might have been hard-pressed to spot clues to Jobs' future success.

He dropped out of Oregon's Reed College after one semester, although he returned to audit a class in calligraphy. He quit one of his first jobs, designing video games for Atari, to backpack around India and take psychedelic drugs.

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But those early experiences, Jobs would say later, shaped his creative vision. The graceful brush strokes of the calligraphy class influenced his elegant Apple aesthetic. His LSD trips as a young man expanded his mind and helped breed Apple's counterculture, "think different" spirit.

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future," he told Stanford University graduates during a commencement speech in 2005. "You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

Why Steve Jobs is so fascinating

Born February 24, 1955, and then adopted, Jobs grew up in Cupertino, California -- Apple's longtime home -- and showed an early interest in electronics. As a teenager, he phoned William Hewlett, president of Hewlett-Packard, to request parts for a school project. He got them, along with a summer job offer at HP.

While at HP, Jobs befriended Steve Wozniak, who impressed him with his skill at assembling electronic components. The two joined a Silicon Valley computer hobbyists club, and Jobs soon teamed with Wozniak and two other men to launch Apple Computer Inc.

It's now the stuff of Silicon Valley lore: Jobs and Wozniak built their first commercial product, the Apple 1, in the garage of Jobs' parents in 1976 (the same year Microsoft began developing software). Jobs sold his Volkswagen van to help finance the venture. The primitive computer, priced at $666.66, had no keyboard or display, and customers had to assemble it themselves.

The following year, Apple unveiled the Apple II computer at the inaugural West Coast Computer Faire. The machine was a hit, and the personal computing revolution was under way. Jobs was among the first computer engineers to recognize the appeal of the mouse and the graphical interface, which let users operate computers by clicking on images instead of writing text.

"When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there," he told Newsweek in 2006. "But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions."

For Jobs, that solution was Apple's pioneering Macintosh computer, which launched in early 1984 with a now-iconic, Orwellian-themed Super Bowl ad. Jobs has long had a reputation as a demanding taskmaster, and the mustachioed computer whiz -- a multimillionaire by age 30 -- drove his Macintosh engineers hard to produce the machine he wanted.

The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work
--Steve Jobs

The boxy beige Macintosh sold well, but Jobs clashed frequently with colleagues, and in 1986, he was ousted from Apple after a power struggle. Then came an 10-year hiatus during which he had high-profile successes (buying Pixar Animation Studios from George Lucas before they made it big with "Toy Story") and failures (founding NeXT Computer, whose pricey, cube-shaped computer workstations never caught on).

In 1996 Apple bought NeXT, returning Jobs to the then-struggling company he had co-founded. Within a year, he was running Apple again -- older and perhaps wiser but no less of a perfectionist. And four years after that, he took the stage to introduce the original iPod, the little white device that revolutionized portable music and kick-started Apple's furious comeback.

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"I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple," he said at Stanford in 2005. "It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick."

When it comes to Apple, you pretty much know the rest. Over the next decade, Jobs wowed launch-event audiences, and consumers, with one game-changing hit after another: iTunes (2003). The MacBook (2006). The iPhone (2007). The iPad (2010).

Observers marveled at his skills as a pitchman, his ability to inspire God-like devotion among Apple "fanboys" (and scorn from PC fans) and his "one more thing" surprise announcements. Time after time, he sold people on a product they didn't know they needed until he invented it. And all this on an official annual salary of $1.

By the mid-2000s, however, Jobs was having serious health problems. In 2004, he announced to his employees that he was being treated for pancreatic cancer. He lost weight and appeared unusually gaunt at keynote speeches to Apple developers, spurring concerns about his health and fluctuations in Apple's stock price. One wire service even accidentally published Jobs' obituary.

Jobs, 56, who is married with four children, had a liver transplant in 2009 during a six-month medical leave of absence from Apple. He took another medical leave in January this year. Because of this, some observers said they weren't surprised by Wednesday's news that Jobs was stepping down as Apple's CEO.

Read Jobs' resignation letter

"There is a certain sort of sad inevitability to this moment," the Times' Nocera told CNN, adding that Jobs wouldn't give up control of his company easily. "Apple is his life. He cares about it almost as much as he cares about his wife and children."

According to the Wall Street Journal, Jobs once famously said, "It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy." He even flew a pirate flag over his engineers' building while they were building the Macintosh. But the reality is his once-renegade tech company, the David to Microsoft's Goliath, is long been part of the mainstream. Apple has more than $70 billion in cash reserves and even briefly surpassed Exxon Mobil this month as the world's most valuable company.

Jobs doesn't give many interviews, especially about his personal life, and Apple has been tight-lipped about his health. But perhaps mindful of his legacy, he has cooperated on his first authorized biography, scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in November.

"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was 23 and the way I handled that," Jobs is quoted as saying in the promotional material for the book, being penned by Walter Isaacson. "But I don't have any skeletons in my closet that can't be allowed out."

By contrast, Jobs has always spoken with immense pride about what he and his engineers have accomplished at Apple.

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do," he told the Stanford grads.

"If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on."


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