One of the best techniques for success in business and in life is intelligent selection of role models. They can serve as sources of wisdom and inspiration, as bright lights illuminating the path to the person you want to become. In Steve Jobs I found much that was worthy of emulation, so I decided to put together a list of business and life lessons I learned from biographies and interviews of him. Here they are:
When Steve was just 12, he called the co-founder of electronics giant Hewlett-Packard to get spare parts for a hobby project. Hewlett was so impressed in that one conversation that he gave Steve a job that summer that started him on his career in technology.
Always ask, why do we do it that way? Often the answer is just inertia: it’s done that way today because it was done that way yesterday, not because it’s the best way. By questioning the way things were, he became an expert at seeing how things could be better. He envisioned desktop publishing, the networked office, and the pervasive, transformative power of the internet long before most others.
Make your own rules.
At college he skipped the required classes and instead just took whatever interested him. (This included a calligraphy class, which contributed to Apple’s leadership on fonts and desktop publishing.) After a while he decided that school was too expensive for his parents to pay for, so he stopped paying his tuition, but he was so charismatic that the dean allowed him to audit classes and stay in a dorm with friends, effectively going to college for free.
Live with intensity.
Life is short. Don’t spend it living someone else’s life, and don’t spend it on small matters. If something isn’t worth doing with intensity, then it’s not worth doing at all.
Learn from the best.
Steve wanted to innovate, so he studied the leading innovators. In Apple’s early days, this was Xerox Parc, so he visited their research labs and saw demonstrations on cutting-edge technologies that changed the trajectory of his company, including graphical user interfaces, object oriented programming, and networked computing.
Let everything be your teacher.
Apple took the best ideas from all fields. The early Macintosh team included people with backgrounds in music, poetry, art, history and other liberal arts, who also happened to be among the best programmers in the world. If not for computer science, they would’ve done amazing things in these other fields. Bringing together diverse expertise made the products better in countless ways.
Think for yourself.
At Apple, Steve didn’t use focus groups and did little or no market research. To be innovative, you can’t rely on customers to tell you what to do, because they don’t know they want and need things that don’t exist yet. You have to think for yourself, in product innovation and all other areas of business.
Learn to program.
Even if you don’t intend to pursue a career in programming, Jobs thought it was worthwhile to learn to program, as it helps you learn to think clearly (and provides you with immediate feedback when you’re not). He felt a business school degree was unnecessary for entrepreneurs, since business isn’t rocket science, and can be learned on the job.
Passion is essential to success.
When hiring, Steve looked for some of the same traits others do, including intelligence and creativity. But his primary recruiting criterion was a passion for the product that person would be working on. In fact, his passion was so contagious that he was careful to first gauge the passion of the recruiting candidate before expressing his. Also, he emphasized that passion matters much more than money. When Apple came up with the Macintosh, IBM was spending at least a hundred times more than Apple on R&D, but it didn’t matter.
Microsoft’s Zune music player failed. Why? Because it was worse than the iPod. But why was it worse? Because mission matters. The Apple team loved music and art and their mission was to make a device they themselves wanted to use. Also, they were inventing something completely new, the first of its kind, which is a powerful motivating mission. The Zune was neither innovative nor driven by a passionate mission, so it’s no surprise that it failed. Really, Sony should’ve owned the MP3 player market, but it also lacked mission; it feared cannibalization of its walkman, and its company divisions had separate P&L and didn’t work well together, so there was no room for a shared mission.
Make something for yourself.
Jobs and Wozniak built the first Apple for themselves because computers at the time were too expensive for them to afford. When their friends saw it, they wanted them too, so the Steves built a kit which enabled their friends to build their computers quickly. Then a local store wanted several dozen pre-built computers, and they realized the retail market was a much bigger opportunity than the do-it-yourself hobbyist market. That’s how Apple got started. Many other successful companies were also born from entrepreneurs creating something that they wanted for themselves, or something that removed a pain point from their lives. By starting a company that makes a product or service you want to use, you’ll be able to better judge its quality, and you’ll also be more passionate about it.
The execution matters more than the idea.
The idea is the easy part. Getting from a great idea to a great product requires genius, craftsmanship and toil to navigate the problems, opportunities, interconnections, subtleties and trade-offs. This is under-appreciated by most people because when it’s done right, the product’s users don’t know about these complexities; the product just works the way it should.
For most things in life, the difference in magnitude between ideal and average is two to one, or less. This isn’t the case in some fields, such as innovative technology product development. Here, sometimes the difference is ten to one. Sometimes it’s a difference not of magnitude but of kind, in that one person or team can do something that another couldn’t do, even given infinite time. In these fields, A players are much, much more valuable than B players. A company should be prepared to pay a lot for these stars, but only if they’re capable of differentiating quality; otherwise they might be paying A money for B players. The additional benefit of hiring A players is that it’s self-reinforcing: A players like working with other A players, so having A players makes it easier to hire and retain other A players.
In the early days, when Jobs couldn’t directly persuade Wozniak to quit his day job to work on the Apple full time, Jobs persuaded Wozniak’s friends and family, and then they persuaded Wozniak to do it. Later, when Jobs was building the world’s first automated computer factory (which he described as machines building machines), he went to Japan and visited not five or ten but eighty automated factories. These are just two examples of how extraordinary results require extraordinary effort.
Master the art of persuasion.
John Sculley had spent fifteen years climbing the ranks at Pepsi, and seemed destined to spend his life there. Jobs wanted him to join Apple, so he shattered those plans with a single question: do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world? On another occasion, a Mac developer told Jobs he couldn’t cut ten seconds off the startup time. Jobs said, what if you could save a life by doing it? The developer said yes, if it was a matter of life or death he could. Jobs replied by saying that 10 seconds per day for 10 million users is the equivalent of 100 lifetimes a year saved. The developer made it happen.
Build a toolbox of techniques for getting what you want.
If logic was on his side, Steve would use that first. If not, he would use charisma, persuasion, or sheer force of will. Often it was a combination of all these. A lot of the tactics mentioned in this article were also used in service of getting what he wanted: being bold, thinking for himself, questioning everything, and making his own rules.
Leverage what already exists.
As kids, Jobs and Wozniak heard about a guy who had found a way to make free long distance phone calls, so they scoured libraries and found an obscure technical journal at a university with the satellite codes necessary to send instructions through AT&T’s system as if coming from AT&T itself. After three weeks of work they had built a device that enabled free long distance calls. The lesson they learned was that they themselves could build something that could control billions of dollars of existing infrastructure, that they could leverage the world.
Believe in the power of technology to change the world.
As a kid, Steve was affected by a Scientific American article he saw that listed the efficiency of locomotion of different species. The condor was first, and the human was closer to the middle than the top of the list. But a human on bicycle was the clear winner. With this simple comparison he saw how humans as tool builders can amplify our abilities and change what’s possible. Later he even used this idea in an ad, calling Apple Computer the bicycle of the mind.
Act like what you do matters, because it does. You will have some impact on the world, so let it be a positive impact, in the service of something bigger than yourself.
Steve was able to convince people of almost anything, and sometimes even to make false things true. He could create self-fulfilling prophesies through charisma and sheer mental force. Those around him called it his reality distortion field, and it worked even when people were aware of it and anticipated it. They eventually accepted it as a force of nature, like gravity.
First impressions matter.
If one characteristic of your product, your service, or yourself is high quality, people are likely to assume the others are too. But if they see one feature or trait that’s low quality, they’ll lower their overall impression and expectations. So impute greatness by making sure the most prominent features, the ones people will see first, are as high quality as possible.
Make something beautiful.
Everyone creates things. You can create beautiful things or ugly things, so why not create beautiful things? Life isn’t just about function; aesthetics matter, so let everything you do be a work of art. What is beautiful? You get to define it for yourself. For Steve, beauty was elegant, simple, intuitive, and powerful.
When looking for role models, admire the trait, but don’t worship the person.
Don’t expect to find perfect role models. People are complex creatures, each with much that’s worth emulating and much that’s not. Steve Jobs was no different in this regard. He had much to teach about how to succeed in business, but he also had many personality traits that I wouldn’t advise modeling yourself after. With any role model, focus on the traits they have that you think will help you move in the direction of the career and life that you want.