Should we compare our lives, or just live them?

When Apple’s Steve Jobs died last month, the accolades predictably poured in. Jobs was called “visionary,” “brilliant” and a “genius” by those who knew him as well as those who did not. His impact on our lives was debated and discussed, with the general consensus that without Jobs, our lives would be somewhat less than they are today.

Jobs was hailed as someone who truly made a difference in others’ lives, and in his case, he made a difference in so many peoples’ lives that it seemed to validate the idea that his was a life well-lived.

In a way, his life has become a kind of ideal, a measuring stick for the rest of us slogging along life’s pothole-filled highway.

In this same context, our youngest son has been completing college entrance applications, most of which require applicants to answer an essay question or two or three to demonstrate why he should be admitted to the school. What’s unspoken is that our son’s essay, test scores and recommendations will be measured and judged against all comers; some will win the golden key, many more will walk away with something other than what they wanted.

One of the essays our son wrote talked about his interest in “making his mark” in the world, his desire to become well-known and well-respected for accomplishing something with his life.

As I read his comments, and as I thought about Jobs’ life, I was struck with a deceptively simple thought: How much of a positive impact do we need to have on others so that we are judged to have “made our mark” and lived a worthwhile life?

Clearly, Jobs was a once-in-a-generation talent. His zeal for perfection and his sense of design made him and his products household names throughout the world.

Meanwhile, our son is just getting started in the life-building business. He has desire, tools and personality, but what are the odds that when all is said and done, he — or any of the rest of us, for that matter — will be judged equal to or greater than Steve Jobs? More to the point, how close do we have to come to that ideal — assuming Jobs and his life are ideals — to be judged “successful” when the final bell is rung?

At this point in his life, our son isn’t burdened much by comparisons or equivocations. His life is in front of him, and he has no reason to worry about limitations or road blocks or measuring up to anyone else.

The hyper-involved senior citizens we’ve written about in this month’s magazine are at the other end of that life scale — they’ve lived a good portion of their lives, and they’re still active, still involved and still impacting others. Collectively, they’re volunteering at a clip that belies their age and puts many of us to shame.

But there’s still that question nagging at me.

Do they, or do we, need to measure up to Jobs to be deemed “successful” when all is said and done?

It’s an interesting point to consider, when we run out of other things to worry about: In life, how much is enough?