Why I Love This Epic Fail by Steve Jobs

A job application from 1973 illustrates the peril of judging a person by their résumé.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | March 16, 2018

A Reed College job application from 1973 was just auctioned off for an astonishing $174,000. But to me, what’s truly intriguing about this document is not its price, but rather how utterly unpromising this candidate—yes, Steve Jobs—looked on paper.

Today Steve is hailed as a visionary innovator and one of the most influential figures in the history of technology.

But on this job application, he’s an absolute nobody.

Image of Steve Job's resume from 1973

He gives no phone number and vaguely lists his address as “reed college” (lowercase.) He’s an English major but has no idea when he might graduate. Position desired? Blank. Past employment? Zero. Access to transportation? “Possible, but not probobale.” Under interests, he lists electronics and design, feebly adding that he is from the Bay Area near Hewlett-Packard, which is also misspelled.

I’ve read some weak job applications in my time (and written a few myself), but this piece of rubbish was surely destined for the dustbin. This application is more than underwhelming—it is a monument to half-assery, an epic, cosmic, fail.

Which is exactly what I love about it.

There is no doubt that a résumé doctor could have sat down with Steve and made this a dozen times stronger, firming up the contact information and fleshing out the work history. (Students today can get this kind of support at the Center for Life Beyond Reed.) They are encouraged to find a purpose, to tell a story through their résumé, to impress employers with their skills and their savvy.

But in 1973, Steve was barely 18 years old. He didn’t know his purpose yet. The future titan of industry was a restless, barefoot wanderer who was into calligraphy, Dylan, Shakespeare, electronics, and dance. He was reading Buddhism in the library, scrounging in Commons, and making little blue boxes to cheat the phone company. These were important, even life-changing experiences, but they didn’t qualify him for a job—and no amount of résumé-polishing could disguise that fact. He was still growing, still exploring, still foolish.

Later that year, Steve did get a part-time gig on campus with the psychology department, repairing equipment for experiments with rats and pigeons. Eventually, he would land a job at Atari, travel to India, and then take over his parents’ garage with a harebrained scheme named for an orchard near McMinnville.

I wish everyone could taste the excitement, the intensity that lies at the heart of true education, whether it takes place reading Plato’s Republic on the Great Lawn or wrestling with Zen koans on a TriMet bus. I wish everyone could have the time and space to kindle the spark of inspiration into a fire. And when it comes to reading—and writing—job applications, I wish everyone could remember that we, too, are unfinished projects, first drafts, rough cuts, works in progress. The main difference is that some of us have been going at it longer than others.

Thanks to Alice Harra at the Center for Life Beyond Reed and Alice Larkin Steiner ’74.

Tags: Alumni, Business, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Life Beyond Reed, Reed History