Alger, Jobs, and American Capitalism

Alger defined his mission clearly.  “A writer for boys,” he explained in 1896, “should remember his responsibility and exert a wholesome influence on his young readers.  Honesty, industry, frugality, and a worthy ambition he can preach through the medium of a story much more effectively than a lecturer or preacher.  I have tried to make my heroes manly boys, bright, cheerful, hopeful, and plucky.  Goody-goody boys never win life’s prizes.  Strong and yet gently, ready to defend those that are weak, willing to work for their families if called upon to do so, ready to ease the burden that may have fallen upon a widowed mother, or dependent brothers or sisters, such boys are sure to success, and deserve success.”

In other words, the system is just.  A number of commentators have been infuriated by the absence of society’s wrongdoing from this picture—the disappearance of exploitative employers, inferior education, racial and class prejudice, and other obstacle that foil those who labor diligently.  Alongside the considered praise for Alger’s tales stands a body of resentment that America should indulge itself, with Alger’s help, in the self-deception that success and failure are exclusively self-made.

“Alger was perhaps American capitalism’s greatest and most effective propagandist,” wrote the novelist Richard Wright in 1945, a year after breaking with the Communist Party.  “He was an utterly American artist, completely claimed by his culture, and the truth of his books is the truth of the power of the wish.  The warm, Sunday-school glow that bathes his heroes is the glow of the dream and its irrational logic.  Perhaps no other American writer ever took so much at their face value the popular delusions and the pious moral frauds of his time.”

— from the introduction to Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York

And as I was reading the book I started out thinking, “This is so dated, this story has faded into mythology by now.”  Well, Alger’s rags-to-riches, pull yourself up by your bootstraps story is certainly well-ensconced in American mythology, but that doesn’t mean it has any less power, or (probably) any less or more truth today than it did a century and a half ago:

I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

[…]

I was lucky – I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation – the Macintosh – a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

[…]

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple.

— Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech [Full text]

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