Steve Jobs was near the end, literally on his deathbed. His daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, was visiting. As she turned to leave, he offered some brutal parting words--words that will now make a lasting addition to his legacy:
"Lisa?" he said after she'd given him a final hug--a hug in which she writes, she could "feel his vertebrae, his ribs. He smelled musty, like medicine sweat."
"Yeah?" she replied.
"You smell like a toilet."
You may have heard this story recently. It's from an article that Brennan-Jobs wrote for Vanity Fair--an excerpt from Small Fry, her new memoir about her relationship with her sometimes-estranged father.
Of everything in her story, those five stunning words--"you smell like a toilet"--truly leap off the page (or the screen). Here's why they're so important.
1. Words have impact.
The average person reportedly speaks more than 1 million words a year. Jobs lived to be 56; let's round it off and say he probably uttered well over 50 million words during his life. Can five of these words really be so important?
Let's also concede that we don't know the tone. Was he making a bad joke? Was he frustrated and uncomfortable? Did he forget having said the phrase a minute later? (It's also not clear these were literally the final words he ever said to his daughter; there may have been other visits afterward.)
Still, none of that matters. The words will last because of the simple fact that they made an indelible impact on Brennan-Jobs. Of all the interactions she had with him during his life, she chose the story of these five words to use in the opening vignette of her story.
As one of history's most incredible entrepreneurs and innovators, I think Jobs would have appreciated this point. The value of words aren't judged only by what the speaker puts into them. They're rightfully judged by what the speaker gets out of them.
2. Words are symbols.
Jobs's impact on you and me was extraordinary. I'm literally typing this story on a MacBook Air, with my iPhone X on the couch next to me. The company and products he created are as enduring as anything any American has ever done.
But at the same time, he could be extraordinarily demanding, stubborn, and cruel. And by all reports we've seen, his relationship with his Brennan-Jobs was endemic of that cruelty.
Much of this has been told at length before--the way he refused even to acknowledge Brennan-Jobs was his daughter for much of her early life, his offhand denial to her that he'd named the Apple Lisa computer after her.
"I see now that we were at cross-purposes," Brennan-Jobs writes in the Vanity Fair article. "For him, I was a blot on a spectacular ascent, as our story did not fit with the narrative of greatness and virtue he might have wanted for himself. My existence ruined his streak."
Sometimes we search for words to express a thought perfectly. Sometimes we find with an amazing turn of phrase.
Sometimes we stumble upon them by accident--a perfect symbol waiting to be shared. That's what Jobs did here--probably without ever realizing it.
"You smell like a toilet" will endure because it sounds like of those symbols.
3. We only get a few words.
Jobs was a great storyteller, and an amazing communicator when he wanted to be. His presentations for new Apple products were legendary. People still study the way he ran meetings. His commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 was one of the greatest of all time.
Some of that ability seems hereditary. Jobs was adopted, but his biological sister is an acclaimed author. And Brennan-Jobs is clearly a talented writer as well.
Now, she's used turning that talent, and using it on her father.
There's a highway not far from where I live that dissects a gigantic cemetery, with thousands and thousands of tombstones. Each one memorializes a human being; each human now reduced in memory to a single epitaph and a couple of dates carved in granite.
I've reflected sometimes while driving past it that in the end, most of us are only going to be remembered by a few words.
Jobs will get more words, of course. But there is a limit. And the story Brennan-Jobs tells about her relationship with her father will justifiably account for some of them now. As silly as the phrase sounds, "You smell like a toilet" will now be a part of the enduring legacy of Steve Jobs.