Most anecdotes about Steve Jobs anecdotes fall into three categories: 1) things he did or said in business meetings, 2) conversations with close friends, and 3) his insanely great public appearances.
My Steve Jobs story is different. It's how he treated a complete stranger (me) and how his kindness changed my life and my career.
My quiet chat with Jobs took place at a Seybold Seminars conference in San Francisco in the early 90s. Back then, Seybold Seminars was the equivalent of E3--the big industry conference where top companies make major announcements.
There were two keynote speakers that night: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, in that order. I was backstage in the main auditorium because my company was a big conference sponsor and my boss was also giving a speech.
While Gates was giving his keynote, Jobs came into the waiting area backstage. I was standing about 30 feet away, listening to Gates's speech. Jobs entered the area with a couple of people, who then left. He was alone, listening to Gates, waiting his turn.
Now, I had heard from my publisher (who knew Jobs from way back) that Jobs had liked my recently published book The Tao of Programming. So I thought, why not? and walked up and introduced myself.
Jobs smiled, shook my outstretched hand and said: "Oh, really? That was a good book. I enjoyed it."
I remarked that Dennis Ritchie (co-designer of Unix) had been seen wearing a Tao of Programming T-shirt.
He said something like, "Yeah, that makes sense," then cocked his head toward the stage, a gesture which clearly meant "Hey, I'm trying to hear Bill's speech." So I said the customary "break a leg!" and gave him back his privacy.
How this changed my life:
On the surface, that conversation seems utterly trivial, I admit. But to me, it turned out to be really important.
First, it told me a great deal about Steve Jobs as a person. Consider: he was about to speak to an audience of several thousand at a major industry event that was being widely covered by national and international media.
To make matters worse, he was going on stage right after his arch-rival Bill Gates--who had already begun his speech. This was back when Jobs's new company, NeXT, didn't seem to be going much of anywhere, and some pundits were actually calling him a has-been.
The last thing Jobs needed at that moment was some insensitive idiot (me) demanding his attention. Under the circumstances, he would have been 100 percent justified in simply ignoring me or even telling me to p--- off.
But instead he was really nice. He took a moment to chat with me and we connected about something that interested us both: how concepts like Tao (and Zen) influence creativity and innovation.
It was right after that conversation that I had the idea to interview the world's best high-tech CEOs to find out what makes them tick. I figured, hey, Jobs was easy to talk to; I'll bet the rest of them are, too.
That was the genesis of what later became Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, the best-selling book that launched my career as a professional writer.
Ironically, I ended up interviewing pretty much everybody for it except Steve Jobs! While I had conversations with the likes of Bill Gates and Michael Dell, Jobs's famously protective PR team wouldn't give me access.
Nevertheless, that short, quiet one-on-one with Steve Jobs was, in its own way, more valuable than all those other, much longer conversations. He treated me more than decently... and that's made all the difference.