Tuesday, April 10, 2012
4:45 AM | Edit Post
I spent all weekend and even yesterday thinking about how I wanted to talk about Steve Jobs and what lessons I took from the biography of him by Walter Isaacson. I think there are many different ways in which you can view Jobs, and how you assess the man is based on your perspective. People who like technology revere him. Technologists look askew at him. People who like being creative love the things he made. People who actually create things find some of his practices loathsome. People who like inspirational things hail him. People who believe in inspiration as a method would recoil from him. CEOs thought he was a mess, marketing gurus found him impossible to please, and consumers gobbled up every word he uttered. Choose the spot from which to observe him, and you'll alternately swear the sight before you is an angel or the devil himself.
I look at him as a competitor. From that angle, he is both sinner and saint. Which one makes up more of his character is debatable, and depends on how important you think it is to win. That's the ultimate point I found in his life. There have been few people in this world who placed such importance on winning. Michael Jordan. Lance Armstrong. Garry Kasparov. Muhammad Ali. J. Edgar Hoover. Richard Branson. Alexander the Great. You have to get to the New World Order Conspiracy level of power brokers to be in the same place as him. This is why I find his life so remarkable-- he has so many things in common with the aforementioned cast, and he exhibited nearly all those traits in the most uninhibited and powerful ways possible. Jobs famously remarked that he thought of the computer as a bicycle for the mind. Some people might say he's the Lance Armstrong of computer nerds. Take my word for it, Lance Armstrong is the Steve Jobs of cyclists. Steve Jobs wasn't the anybody of anything, ever... period.
There are lots of sharks in the world, but the Great White is recognized as the most highly evolved killer. That's how I view Steve Jobs. He was the perfect competitor; relentless, uncompromising, and absolutely possessed by the will to win. This is what I learned about the perfect competitor by watching Isaacson dissect his life.
The first lessons I learned come from his early days before he started Apple. Jobs and (mostly) Wozniak developed the first two Apple computers. They attended regular meetings of a group of developers building computers as well. The group typically shared their designs and discussed them, but after their second build, Jobs decided he was done sharing. He wanted to start building and selling the units. Wozniak thought it was a bad idea, since the whole point of the club was to share information and make better computers. Business students would conclude that Jobs saw the opportunity to start a market. I think it was more fundamental than that. Hewlett Packard and IBM had been around for a long time. The market already existed and everybody knew it. Jobs realized that there was a game being played, and he wanted to win it. That's the first stone in the foundation of a competitor. They wake up one day, see some kind of game going on, and decide that they're going to kick everyone's ass at it. That he bucked the rules of the club by not openly sharing the computer's design (and even went so far as to charge them for models) demonstrated another element of his character that influenced him throughout his life and made him the prototypical competitor. Jobs never believed in following a rule just because it was a rule. If no one told him he couldn't do it, if it didn't look like anyone would tell him he couldn't do it, or even if someone told him he couldn't but didn't look strong enough to keep him from doing it, he went ahead and just did it. There are analogs to this all over the place; Graeme Obree's improved bike positions, Fosbury's flop, Pele's famous bicycle kick. Innovation is a great thing, but make no mistake. Being a champion requires innovation, and innovation requires at least a slight belief that everyone else is a chump for doing the same old things the same old ways.
Things took off quickly for Apple (which was almost named Bicycle because of Jobs' aforementioned observation, incidentally). Jobs got Wozniak to improve the designs, acquired some funding and corralled his family into helping him. You almost miss it in Isaacson's telling of the story, because things are so busy at this point, but if you look at who's doing what you realize that Jobs primarily spent his time telling people what to do and inspecting their work. It was Wozniak and the family that built the computers, organized the parts, cooked the meals and did the bookkeeping. To me, that's a profound example of the first gate a successful competitor has to get through pretty early on in their quest-- you have to convince people to work hard on behalf of your success. Except for Wozniak, none of the friends or family members that helped Jobs build those first computers ever got rich. They certainly didn't get famous. Jobs seduced them into joining his cause, and then drove them like slaves to bring it to fruition. He did this repeatedly throughout his career, and it was one of the pillars of his success. Over and again, he identified the top talent available, got them to believe working for him would be the greatest experience of their lives, and then whipped them like dogs until they gave him what he believed was perfection. The brutality he exerted on people is another issue entirely, but it's necessary to mention here because it emphasizes just how good he was at bringing people into the fold. When he returned to Apple in 1996, everyone in the computer industry knew his reputation. If Steve Jobs came and asked you to work at Apple, you walked into the Cupertino offices with your eyes wide open. And yet, that's exactly what the extraordinarily innovative people who made Apple successful did, fully aware of the punishment they would surely suffer. As harsh and abusive as he was, he could always talk people into it. It's good to be king, and you can always be king so long as you can find people to rule.
More thoughts later...
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