How Steve Jobs Taught Us to Fish

One of the more controversial aspects of Steve Jobs’ personal life was his apparent aversion to donating to public charities. In fact, some have even tried to rationalize his behavior by suggesting (hoping?) he may have really given privately. This discussion, and the presumption that Jobs should have been giving to public charities even if he wasn’t, suggests a real disconnect between our understanding of wealth creation, poverty, and charitable giving.

Close associates of Jobs say that he didn’t give to public charities, believing his wealth was better directed at building Apple and transforming the world with better products than giving it away. It’s important to remember that the lions share of public charities are principally focused on redistributing wealth, not creating it. Their activities are focused on spending and consumption, not innovation or productive activities that generate income.

So, here’s the connection that’s missing from most of the debate: As long as Jobs’s personal billions of dollars remained locked in Apple’s stock, his wealth represented capital that could be leveraged to develop, build, and launch new products that could change the world. If he had given it away to charities, that wealth would no longer be available for real wealth creation. While much of it would still be invested in investment markets by charities, these investments would most likely be “safe” investments, not the cutting edge technologies spurred by entrepreneurial vision that inherently carry a lot of risk and uncertainty.

Steve Jobs was spectacularly successful at what he accomplished in the wealth creating world (particularly later in his life). He was living the Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” As of September 2010, Apple, Inc. employed 46,600 people world wide. Those people, and the millions of others inspired by him, were taught to fish by Steve Jobs.

That may be Steve Jobs greatest charitable contibution to the world.