Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple chief executive Tim Cook turned serious and emotional when he talked about his late mentor and boss, Steve Jobs, at the All Things D conference today.

It was clear that Jobs, who died in 2011 after an extended battle with cancer, had made a deep impression on Cook as a human being as well as the leader of a company.

“It was one of the saddest days of my life,” Cook said, “the day that he died. And as much as you could predict that, it really hit me.”

On what he learned from Jobs, Cook said, “I learned that focus is key. You can only do so many things well, and you should cast aside everything else. I think he taught all of us that life is fragile, and we’re not guaranteed anything tomorrow, so give it all you’ve got.”

Jobs also imbued the company with a relentless pursuit of excellence — a personal trait of Jobs’, and now a corporate value of Apple’s.

“Only accepting the very best — that’s embedded in Apple.”

“Apple has a culture of excellence that’s so unique, and so special, that I’m not going to witness or permit the change of it,” Cook said.

However, Cook said, the magic of Apple depends on its continued growth and change. “I love museums, but I don’t want to live in one,” he said.

He told a story Jobs had told him about the Walt Disney company, where Jobs became a board member after Disney acquired Pixar. Disney executives, he said, were obsessed with what Walt Disney, the company’s long-dead founder, would do — and in Jobs’ view, that was getting in the way of managing the company properly in the modern age. Jobs exhorted Cook not to let that happen at Apple, Cook said.

Cook acknowledged that Jobs could change his mind more rapidly than anyone else he knew — a trait he actually admires.

“He would flip on something so fast that he would forget he was the person taking a 180 degree different position the day before. It was a gift. It was an art.”

“I saw it daily,” Cook said, to chuckles in the audience. But then he turned serious.

“This is a gift, because things do change. It takes courage to admit that you weren’t right. It takes courage. And he had that.”

Later, Cook described his job interview with Jobs in 1998. He said he interviewed for the Apple job reluctantly at first, because he hadn’t been at his previous job long, and wasn’t sure he wanted to go to a company that, frankly, wasn’t doing well at the time.

“The honest to God truth was that five minutes into the meeting with Steve, I wanted to join the company,” Cook said. That’s because Jobs had a vision for going deep into the consumer market, at a time when every other PC company was moving the opposite direction, toward business customers. Also, Cook said he was impressed that Jobs, despite having lots of money, was unaffected by it.

But mostly, Jobs painted a vision for how the company would serve customers that Cook found compelling. He went back home and resigned his job at Compaq immediately.

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