10 Things I've Learned from Steve Jobs' Life

(This is the first of two parts…)

I know, I know, you’re probably saying, “Enough with the Steve Jobs already!” Yet here you are, like me, compelled by the story of this man’s life. I recently read Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs’ life, and instead of a straightforward review (there are plenty of ones out there), I thought I’d share 10 reflections that have impacted me about this person behind the persona. These are in no particular order.
1. Steve Jobs believed that what he was doing was so important that he had to control of every aspect of it.
Jobs, unlike his Apple co-founder, Steve Wosniak, believed that any product Apple created needed to be tightly controlled. His motive was to provide a seamless end-to-end user experience. From packaging to operation to technical support, Jobs believed that Apple needed to control it. This philosophy is very divergent from Bill Gates’. Gates’ company, Microsoft, licensed their operating system for use on any hardware to the point that they relinquished control over the user’s experience. According to Jobs, this made for shoddy products. In order to delight the user, Jobs felt that he had to deny empowering the user.
It was Jobs’ need for control and the integrated approach (where Apple controlled everything from end-to-end, even the apps that you can use on their products must be approved) that allowed Apple to have revolutionary success with the IPod, ITunes, and IPhone. Had Jobs relented earlier on giving up control, there would have been no skeleton into which to integrate these products. Isn’t that what makes Apple products so great? They just work. And they work together…but they are controlled – Apple’s notorious secrecy is a clear example of such control.
Jobs’ need for control extended beyond Apple’s products, however. Jobs controlled the culture of Apple by frequent meetings, inspections, reports, etc.

Jobs did not organize Apple into semiautonomous divisions; he closely controlled all of his teams and pushed them to work as one cohesive and flexible company, with one profit-and-loss bottom line. (p. 408)

He was a micro-examiner as opposed to a micro-manager. As long as he had people that he trusted working on a project, he would allow them ply their craft with his careful and periodic inspections. In the decoration of his house, the building of storefront, office space, and even the design and construction of his own place, Jobs was meticulous about controlling, or at least having a say, in every part of the process.
Why was he such a control freak? Because he believed that he was making art. He believed that the work he was doing was so important that he could not entrust it to someone else. All through the chapters of his life, you can sense the intensity and urgency of a man whose work mattered to him because he believed that what he created would change the world. Do you believe that about the work you do?
2. Steve Jobs never quite got over his abandonment issues.
Jobs’ was put up for adoption as a baby, and Isaacson notes that never quite got over this. It was part of the reason that Jobs could be so cruel and hurtful to people. It explained why he was so distant from his own family, throwing himself into his work. Almost as if he was trying to prove to the world (and his birth parents) that putting him up for adoption was a huge mistake, Jobs was relentless in his pursuit of perfection. Jobs’ abandonment issues never resulted in disdain or resentment for his adoptive parents. He had nothing but love and respect for them, and much of Jobs’ standards for excellence and perfection were passed to him from his adoptive father, Paul. It appears that Jobs never really came to grips with these feelings of abandonment. He was always trying to prove himself, and at the same time keeping tight control over his relationships so that no one would ever abandon him again.
It makes me wonder how different Jobs would have been had he believed in the doctrine of adoption – that no matter what our earthly relationships look like, we have a Father who at great cost to himself (the death of his true Son), bought us back and adopted us as his children. That’s worth. That’s purpose. That’s great motivation to make great products to demonstrate his greatness.
3. For all his spiritual quests, it never transformed his character.
Early on in life, Jobs was fascinated by the spirituality of Zen buddhism. He even made a yearlong pilgrimage to India to study with a renowned guru. Jobs used meditation, diet, and other means in his attempts to obtain enlightenment. Even though he was committed to this way of life, it was not consistent with any worldview in particular, and it certainly didn’t form his character. Jobs was known for being temperamental and bratty. If he didn’t get his way, he would pout, cry, yell – tactics my 2-year old resorts to. Isaacson says,

His Zen training never quite produced in him a Zen-like calm or inner serenity, and that too is part of his legacy. He was often tightly coiled and impatient, traits he made no effort to hide. (p. 564)

Yet Jobs took moral stances on injustices in the U.S. education system. He refused (unsuccessfully) to let the IPhone be a channel for porn distribution. Still, even now, the ITunes store does not sell pornographic material either in media or in apps.
Unlike Bill Gates, he was not philanthropic or generous, yet he wasn’t ostentatious or self-absorbed in his lifestyle. He simply believed that his contribution to society was making great products, his art, to make the world a better place. I find this odd given that his wife, Laurene Powell, cofounded and launched a national after-school program that helped underprivileged high school kids get into college. Jobs was impressed by the work, but rarely gave to it and never visited. For a man so bent on changing the world, it’s too bad he didn’t see his vast personal fortune as a resource to be used to that end.
Our spirituality has to affect our character. Any pursuit of the divine or enlightenment, or holiness – whatever you want to call it – must change us for the better.
4. Jobs paid attention to detail in his pursuit of perfection…often times to maddening degrees.
Jobs possessed equally the two qualities that most leaders experience in binary tension.

[Some] leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly. (p. 565)

From the number of, color, and type of, on/off buttons in the plane he was designing, to the color of the inside of the cases for the Apple II and later the PowerMac, Jobs was meticulous about every little detail of his products. For most of his life, his main house was largely unfurnished because he could not find furniture that suited his artistic tastes as well as attention to detail. As a CEO, Jobs paid meticulous attention to the design of products and the strategies used to market them. He drove his employees crazy spending disproportionate amounts of time going back and forth over seemingly trivial design decisions. For instance, Jobs obsessed over the shade of beige the cases for the Apple II machines (none of the 2000 shades available were good enough) or the curve of the head of the screw in the Apple machines.
Interestingly enough, Jobs’ pursuit of perfection could leave him indecisive when it was clear he had to settle for something less.

For all of his willfulness and insatiable desire to control things, Jobs was indecisive and reticent when he felt unsure about something. He craved perfection, and he was not always good at figuring out how to settle for something less. (p. 315)

Jobs OCD-like tendencies were the natural expression of the importance and urgency he assigned to his work. He wanted perfection because his work demanded it, and the world deserved it. What others saw as nitpicky, Jobs saw as small compromises along the way. It also stemmed from his lack of trust in anyone, but himself. He needed to get everything right because only he could do so.
Though on the neurotic side, I admire his attention to detail in the name of excellence.
5. Jobs’ goal was not to get rich, but to make great products.
Jobs made 256 million dollars by the age of 25, but never made a big show of it. In his second stint with Apple, he worked for two years as the iCEO for the salary of $1 / year (though he did get the board to buy him a plane and extensive stock options). His goals were simple: make great products and make a great company. Like Walt Disney, HP, Intel, Jobs saw that his work was part of a larger history. His role was to add to the legacy of those who went before and leave something behind for those who are to come whether through movies or technological, lifestyle-changing products. Jobs said,

I hate it when people call themselves “entrepreneurs” when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now. (p. 569)

Jobs’ attitude towards money is remarkable, and part of me wonders if he had such a nonchalant attitude towards money because he had so much of it. What is noteworthy is that Jobs wasn’t just trying to get rich – he saw himself as an artist more than a businessman. Contrast this to the sentiment of most people out there living paycheck to paycheck. Most of us don’t have time to think about our work as art because we’re busy trying to meet our needs. Consider this for a moment – Jobs knew what it was to be poor as well as insanely rich. In all those valleys and peaks, his finances never detracted from his focus of climbing the next mountain.

I never worried about money. I grew up in a middle-class family, so I never thought I would starve. And I learned at Atari that I could be an okay engineer, so I always knew I could get by. I was voluntarily poor when I was in college and India, and I lived a pretty simple life even when I was working. So I went from fairly poor, which was wonderful, because I didn’t have to worry about money, to being incredibly rich, when I also didn’t have to worry about money. I watched people at Apple who made a lot of money and felt they had to live differently. Some of them bought a Rolls-Royce and various houses, each with a house manager and then someone to manage the house managers. Their wives got plastic surgery and turned into these bizarre people. This was not how I wanted to live. It’s crazy. I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to let this money ruin my life. (p. 105)

Check back tomorrow for Part II…

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  1. Pingback: Steve Jobs (repost) « Echoes of the Myth

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