In 1983, John Sculley was the president of Pepsi. He was the youngest president ever for the company when he got the job in 1977. As a marketing exec, he had been responsible for the Pepsi Challenge, a campaign so effective that Pepsi was catching up with long-term leader, Coke. He was very successful and very happy with his job. Then he met Steve Jobs.
In 1983, Jobs was looking for a new president for Apple. Even though he was a co-founder, he was considered too young and inexperienced for the job of running day-to-day operations, so he was recruiting someone successful who he thought he could work successfully with. He targeted Sculley. It was a crazy idea to try to get the head of one of the country’s most successful companies to come lead a small computer company, but Jobs went after what he wanted. Sculley later remembered how Jobs finished his pitch:
“And then he looked up at me and just stared at me with the stare that only Steve Jobs has and he said, ‘Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?’ And I just gulped, because I knew I would wonder for the rest of my life what I would have missed.”
Sculley took the job and spent the next 10 years at Apple, being one of the drivers behind some of Apple’s greatest growth in its early period. (The two men had a falling out that led to Jobs leaving Apple in 1985, but that’s another story.)
In our society, we’re raised to believe we’re supposed to be selling some form of sugar water. We live in a wealthy consumer society, so there’s nothing wrong with selling sugar water, whether your “sugar water” is cars or clothes or shoes or software. Somebody needs to buy all of those things. If somebody’s willing to pay you to do it, there’s a market for it. But for some of us, there’s a burning desire to do something that matters — to do something that has a chance to change the world.
If you’re happy with selling your sugar water, I’m not telling you that you should change what you’re doing. But if you’re unfulfilled with the place you’ve found in society — if you’ve found it empty and comfortable and boring — I’m going to ask you to consider that maybe you weren’t meant to live the modern American lifestyle in the plastic suburbs. Maybe you should be finding a way to change the world instead.
Most people are satisfied living their little plastic lives and watching television and spending time with people they don’t really like — while slowly dying inside. Iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa explained in a 1981 interview (video below) what he believed American schools were doing to create this kind of numbed-out drone:
“Schools train people to be ignorant with style. They give you the equipment that you need to be a functional ignoramus. American schools do not equip you to deal with things like logic. They don’t give you the criteria by which to judge between good and bad in any medium or form however. And they prepare you to be a usable victim for a military-industrial complex that needs manpower. As long as you’re just smart enough to do a job and just dumb enough to swallow what they feed you, you’re going to be alright. But if you go beyond that, you’re going to have these grave doubts that give you stomach problems, headaches — make you want to go out and do something else, so I believe that schools mechanically and very specifically try and breed out any hint of creative thought in the kids that are coming up.”
So if Zappa was right — and I believe he was — it means those of us who don’t swallow what we’ve been fed and end up asking too many questions are going to be unhappy — until we can find a way to do something else. Something that matters.
I believe we’re living in an exciting time of possibilities. The world is in horrible shape and the economic and social structures are showing great strain. There are problems all around us. But those problems mean opportunities for those who are willing to open their minds and hearts to new possibilities that go beyond what we were fed in school. Everybody else can keep selling the sugar water — right up until the day when things collapse and they wonder what happened.
There are opportunities to change the world right now. They won’t be easy, but there are problems to be solved. The answers to those problems will potentially build future empires and will make the world a better place for millions — possibly billions — of people. So with that in mind, I’ll ask you to take a look at your present life. Take a look at the people you’re around and the sugar water you’re selling — whatever that metaphor looks like in your life — and I’ll ask you the same question that Steve Jobs asked John Sculley in 1983:
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?”