10 Things I Learned From Steve Jobs

"In the future, these will make great arm rests." - Steve Jobs

“In the future, these will make great arm rests.” – Steve Jobs

I finished reading the Steve Jobs Biography by Walter Isaacson last week. Inspiring stuff. Not only does it read as a great guide to pissing people off, it documents the life of a quite remarkable man and there’s no sign of Ashton Kutcher.

I thought I might be able to learn something from old Steve. In a life lasting only 56 years, he effectively revolutionised 6 industries, created the most successful company in the world, and was a major driving force behind a little film studio called Pixar. He also once sent a glass of juice back 3 times because he said it hadn’t been freshly squeezed, so I’ve been doing that a lot with pints down the pub this week to look like more of a perfectionist.

But apart from the old “triple send back” what 10 other lessons did I learn from Jobs’ success? 

1. Be Fearless – When Jobs was 14 he needed some parts for a frequency counter he was working on. So he just looked up Bill Hewlett (the founder of Hewlett-Packard and one of the most powerful men in Silicon valley) in the phone book and called him up to ask for the equipment he needed. They chatted for twenty minutes, Jobs got the parts and also got offered a job that Summer working at HP. Most people would have not picked up the phone, but this marked the start of a career where Jobs refused to accept that normal rules applied to him. At it’s most ridiculous, this meant parking in handicapped spaces outside Apple Offices. But at it’s most profound this lead him to revolutionise six industries by refusing to follow the examples set by other technology companies. Jobs wasn’t controlled by fear. Even when bed-ridden and nearing the end of his life, Jobs offered a damning yet perceptive analysis of Obama’s presidency, “I’m disappointed in Obama… He’s having trouble leading because he’s reluctant to offend people or piss them off.” Jobs didn’t have that problem. He didn’t seem to care what others thought of him, he wasn’t afraid to steal ideas when he needed to and he didn’t shy away from confrontation if it meant getting what he wanted. To summarise, the lesson here is have big balls.

2. Strive For Perfection – Jobs was a unrelenting perfectionist, and while this was of less use in his personal life (as a bachelor he lived in virtually empty rooms because he had trouble choosing furniture), when it was directed at Apple’s products it lead to great innovation and design. Rather than pursuing profit, Jobs was driven to create “insanely great products.” In short, Apple was successful because they made better things. Better interfaced, better designed, better packaged. Just better. Jobs wouldn’t put anything out into the market place that didn’t meet his high standards. If this meant bending the laws of science to make it happen then so be it. Jobs’ had what his employees would affectionately call “a reality distortion field” where he refused to accept facts that conflicted with his vision of perfection. Whether it be being informed by his team that the original Macintosh would never ship in time or that a metal casing on the iPhone would interfere with the antenna, he consistently refused to take no for an answer and sent his teams back to make it work. Most of the time they solved the problem and did what they previously thought was impossible.

3. Go With Your Gut – Whilst this phrase could also be used to stress the importance of regular bowel movements to success, with Jobs it meant a lot more. His interest in Eastern spirituality, specifically Zen Buddhism, had lead him to develop and master a gut instinct which he used to great effect in his decision making. He claimed the Western world had disregarded this natural decision-making tool in favour of logic and intellectual thinking, but for Jobs his instinct was everything. If it felt right, Jobs did it, much to the amazement and concern of more logical thinkers on his board. This allowed him to make bold decisions and make them quickly, giving Apple a fluidity that most other large tech companies didn’t have. This also helped Apple stay ahead of the pack when it came to product development, and also make radical shifts in direction when necessary. In fact, one could argue that his specific genius stemmed not from intelligence as such but more from an uncanny ability to make the right decisions at the right time.

4. Follow Your Passion – When John Sculley, the then President at Pepsi, asked Jobs why he should come and work for him, Jobs replied “Do you want to spend your whole life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Within months Sculley had become the new President of Apple. Jobs had an “Svengali-like” way of convincing people of his vision, which was perhaps a touch manipulative at times, but more often than not was down to a natural charisma that shone through because his passion for his ideas. Early on, he realised, like his hero Edwin Land of Polaroid, that he was passionate about ideas that came at the “intersection of humanities and science.” He set out to explore ways that technology could create art.  All of Apple’s and Pixar’s success can be attributed to the pursuit of this idea. Jobs’ harnessed the potential of new technologies to create products that empowered their users to create art. As I sit here writing this work of art blog on a Mac it feels difficult to argue with that.

5. Simplicity Is Beautiful – The first Apple brochure had a quote on the front that was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the utimate sophistication.” Jobs was undoubtedly a minimalist (another trait that linked with his interest in Zen buddhism) and he found a kindred spirit in the form of Jony Ive, the British designer, who joined Apple in the early 90s. They both admired the work of Dieter Rams, the Braun designer who preached the mantra of “Less but better,” and sought to implement this in creating products stripped of unnecessary surface detail and with uncomplicated interfaces that were intuitive to use. But simple did not mean easy. To achieve such simplicity took a lot of work. Jobs and Ive would spend months studying models of their potential products attempting to refine and remove unnecessary detail. As Ive explains, “To be truly simple you have to go really deep… You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

6. Work With A-Team Players – Jobs believed “A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” For a lot of people, working under Jobs was probably not much fun. Their boss was unflinching in telling people exactly what he thought. But he claimed that A-Team players liked to know the truth and could handle it. It was “B-Team” players who took offence. Jobs saw recruiting a great team as the most important thing he did and he oversaw all aspects of it, never delegating. He sought out the “needles in the haystack,” people who could mirror his quest for perfection, but more importantly fill in the gaps and compensate for his shortcomings. People like Tim Cook, Jonny Ive, Steve Wozniak. When he found them, he valued their talents and their abilities to offer fresh perspectives. Even though Jobs had is opinions and was more than happy to thrust them down people’s throats, he was also prepared to change his mind on things. The people who thrived at Apple were able to not only enforce Jobs’ ideas, but also push back with their own.

7. Skate Where The Puck Is Going, Not Where It’s Been – This was a phrase that Jobs borrowed from Wayne Gretzky, the ice hockey player, and it sums up Jobs’ ability to predict trends and implement them way before others had caught on. Jobs didn’t react to demand, he created it by telling consumers why they needed the product in their lives. He believed Henry Ford’s assertion that if he had “asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” When the other tech companies were scrambling to create devices that used a “stylus” (those thin pen things that Samsung still loves) to operate them, Jobs’ scoffed at this, holding up his hands and saying “God gave us ten styluses. Lets not invent another.” The result was Apple becoming a pioneer of multi-touch technology. The atmosphere of forward-thinking at Apple also prevented complacency. As soon as he had a successful product in the marketplace, Jobs would ask “How can we improve this?” On the odd occasions where Apple did find themselves behind the competition they were quick to catch up and take the technology a lot further. The result of them falling behind in the MP3 player race, lead to the iPod and, more significantly, iTunes.

8. Don’t Be Afraid To Start Again – This one really stood out for me. On many of Jobs great successes he maintained that there was usually a point in the process where some of the original plans were ripped up and the team started again. Whether this was the Pixar team having to go back to the drawing board (literally) with Woody’s character in Toy Story to make him more sympathetic, or Jobs realising, with deadlines looming, that he wasn’t in love with the iPhone design and they needed to change it, in each instance Jobs wasn’t afraid of undoing the work already done in pursuit of something better. In fact, he seemed to actually welcome this as an essential part of the creative process of getting to the core of an idea. He once said, “If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. This rule even applied to his own life, when at 30 years old he was fired by Apple and had to start again. He credited this setback as an important part of his development and key to his success when he eventually returned to Apple 11 years later.

9.  Foster The Underdog Spirit – Reading the book I was struck by how many times Jobs cast himself and his company as the underdog. Perhaps this stemmed from his early knowledge that he was adopted and had something to prove, but throughout his career he used the underdog mentality to inspire his teams to prove doubters wrong and destroy the competition. The original Macintosh unit he was in charge of hung a pirate flag from their building, and saw themselves as the outcasts of Apple. This spurred them on to create a better computer than their co-workers. Whether it was conscious or not, Jobs liked to create a common enemy to help forge Apple’s own sense of identity. In the early days it was Bill Gates and Microsoft, and then later, even when Apple were themselves a huge corporate company, he found a nemesis in Google. For proof of Jobs vision of Apple as the plucky underdog full of revolutionary spirit railing against the corporate world just watch their 1984 Super Bowl commercial.

10. Focus On What’s Important – Jobs hated Powerpoint presentations. I think we can all relate to that. He saw them as an unnecessary distraction. His favourite tool was a white board and a marker pen. Throughout his career, Jobs stove to cut through the noise and focus completely on what was important. This streamlining spoke both his Zen ideals and his interest in minimalism, and he applied it not only in meetings, but to his whole business strategy. When he was brought back into Apple as CEO after a 11 year hiatus, he inherited a company months from bankruptcy with a huge and confusing inventory of products. His first action was to cut down Apple’s production making them focus on just four new products. To many this seemed crazy but this move meant Apple regained it’s footing and went on to become the world’s successful company. Jobs believed that focus was crucial to his success and that saying no to ideas and projects was just important to saying yes. As he put it “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

And that’s the 10 Commandments of Jobs. If we memorise them, with a bit of practice, we can all be like Jobs and start the world’s most successful company. Anyway, I must go visit the little boys’ room. I’ve got another gut feeling coming on. Must be those dodgy pints!


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