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Defining Success: Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Defining Success: Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?

What will you leave behind: an inheritance or a legacy?


Two people stand out as supreme examples of success in our generation.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates certainly made more money than anyone of us can ever realistically contemplate acquiring. They are paradigms of the entrepreneurial spirit. They reached the pinnacle of wealth, fame and prominence.

Both are men of tremendous achievement. Jobs gave us Apple, and Gates gave us Microsoft. Their brilliance was responsible for stunning technological breakthroughs that have literally changed the world.

While Jobs tragically passed away last year and Gates is thankfully still alive, we could surely assume that both will have earned lasting legacies that will make them be long remembered.

That's why I found it so incredible to learn what Malcolm Gladwell believes is in store for their memories. To be fair, Gladwell isn't a prophet and the future may very well prove him greatly mistaken. But it's certainly worth considering the views of this very influential author of The Tipping Point, Outliers and Blink, whose insights into cultural attitudes have made him a highly respected and influential analyst of contemporary society.

The future will remember tech giants more for what they gave back to society than for what they achieved in business.

As quoted in PC Magazine, Gladwell thinks that 50 years from now Steve Jobs will be no more than a minor footnote in the pages of history; Bill Gates, on the other hand, may well have statues erected in his honor in countries around the globe. The reason for the difference? Jobs was a business genius. He built a company like no other. He left us with incomparable products.

Gates went beyond that. He reached a time in life when making money and creating ever newer software wasn't as important as the charitable work he could do through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And ultimately that is what gains us the eternal gratitude of generations that follow us.

Gladwell succinctly summarizes it this way: “I believe the future will ultimately remember tech giants more for what they gave back to society than for what they achieved business-wise.”

Gladwell didn't use the Hebrew term tikun olam as his mantra for life's purpose. But Jews have long understood that playing a role in rectifying the world and making it a better place for all of mankind is our most important mission.

Success isn't defined by what we manage to get, but rather by what we are able to give.

And that's true even if we’re not in a position to start a foundation or to embark upon the kinds of projects that only a billionaire can tackle.

The Debt

A friend of mine, a prominent attorney, shared with me a personal story that inspired him to change his life. While he is financially very well-to-do, his parents were forced to struggle to make a decent livelihood all of their days. His father had a dual career, as rabbi and teacher, which provided him with the economic ability to barely survive. By the standards of our materialistic society which considers the question of "How much is he worth?” to be the same as to ask how much money a person has, one would have had to respond, "not very much."

A year after his father's death, my friend went to pay his respects at graveside and to offer prayers in his memory. To his great amazement, a stranger was standing at that very spot, weeping and praying. The man wasn't a relative or anyone he recognized.

"Are you sure you are at the right grave?" my friend asked.

"Most certainly," the man responded.

"I am the rabbi's son," my friend said. "May I ask the nature of your relationship?"

"Although we've never met," the stranger told him, "I too am the rabbi's son. Not in a biological sense, of course. I didn't have that good fortune. But your father was my teacher - and he became my father as well. He cared about me as much as if I were his real son. He taught me Torah with a passion and clarity that no one else ever did. He made me a better person and I will always remember him with great gratitude. When he passed away I made a vow to annually visit and in the presence of his soul express the debt I owe to him."

I've made money, lots and lots of it, but my father made people.

"It was then," my friend confided to me, his eyes welling with tears, "that I wondered who other than those bound by familial obligations would come to my graveside after I'm gone to give thanks for what my life had meant to them. I've made money, lots and lots of it, but my father made people. And it was then that I decided that I would from that day forward commit a significant portion of my time and my funds to make a difference in the lives of others.

"The reason you know me as someone who is philanthropic and who serves a multitude of communal roles is because I decided I desperately want my life to be remembered not by way of leaving an inheritance but rather by leaving a legacy. Like my father, I want my worth to be judged by my values and not by my bank account."

The turning point in my friend’s life was the moment he wanted to be more like Gates than like Jobs. And whether we have sufficient funds to create a foundation or just the means to give a little bit back to the world into which we were born and from which we derive so much, the true test of our character is always how much we are willing to do to justify the divine gift of our lives.

One of the people I truly admire, a man who is neither rabbi nor teacher but rather a very successful businessman, has a card he hands out to everyone he meets that I find profoundly inspiring. On one side it reads," What on Earth are you doing for Heaven’s sake?" On the reverse side is his personal credo, "Helping others is the rent we pay to God for the right to live here on Earth."

We need to remember that legacies are created during our lifetimes. The key to achieving greatness is to be responsible for something that outlives us. Horace Mann put it beautifully when he said, "Be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity." And the Torah commanded us to be concerned with tikun olam, improving the world, not merely as a way to fulfill our responsibility but more significantly as a means of finding immortality.

June 16, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 52

(36) Tynoos Angelica, December 6, 2012 7:03 AM

Bill Gates agenda not charity but eugenics

More thorough research of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation causes needed by the writer. Gates' agenda is world depopulation and he has openly expressed this on the TED talks. His vaccination/sterilization programs and multi-million dollar investments in Monsanto GMO seeds speak volumes about the true nature of his so-called philanthropy. Steve Jobs was a true maverick and pioneer. Gates is a very scary guy. Good points by the writer about charitable legacy being important, but horribly misinformed example of role model.

(35) Sandra, November 12, 2012 7:26 PM

More or Less

You can not compare Apple & Microsoft. Microsoft is a product line far beyond the 'singular' Apple model products. And Bill Gates is far beyond where Steve Jobs ever was. Steve Jobs was not a people person. He was an arrogant driven selfish product person. He may have put an an iProduct in every home, but people would work for Microsoft 100x over Apple. The Rabbi's point is well taken. It's not what you accomplish during life, it's what is left behind. Of course we haven't seen life after Gates yet, but I believe the Rabbi when he says that the legacy of Bill Gates will far and away over-shadow the legacy of Steve Jobs ... time will tell.

(34) Anonymous, October 30, 2012 6:31 PM

NEVER make any comments

(33) G Brodie, July 30, 2012 7:21 PM

There is more than one way to better society

In my heart I need to disagree with the point this article is trying to make. The contributions of Steve Jobs i.e. his genius, creativity and brilliant attention to the detail has impacted people all over the world and will continue to for a very long time and will not be forgotten in the same way that Shakespeare and Michelangelo have not been forgotten. On the other hand, how money has impacts lives is very different no matter its use.

Greg, December 5, 2012 6:09 PM

Jobs??? Really???

Yes Steve Jobs was a genius but that is about it the thing is when Steve Jobs died i conducted a little experiment I asked well over 200 people over a week who Steve Jobs was less than 40 people knew who he was at the same time I asked all of the same people who Bill Gates was every last one of them knew him and what company he owned. Steve Jobs will be forgotten to be honest I had already forgotten him until I was reading this article.

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