This is a series on influencers. Chris and I wouldn’t be doing what we do today were it not for a handful of people who inspired us to reach beyond what we previously believed was possible. Of course, family and friends are at the heart of our endeavors, but we’ve also taken lessons from some well-known success stories.
In this edition of Influencers: A Series on Leadership, we’ll look at the legendary Steve Jobs, and what his story can teach us about fearlessness (sometimes to the point of folly).
Steve Jobs was born in 1955 and raised in Cupertino, California, in what is now Silicon Valley. Steve met the prodigal computing engineer Steve Wozniak at an early age, and the two decided to go into business selling computers together in 1976.
These early Apple computers were successful, especially the Apple II, and Jobs quickly became the cofounder of a Fortune 500 company by 1983. Later, Apple engineers visited Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to see a demonstration for a revolutionary graphical user interface. This was a groundbreaking innovation and a far cry from the text-based interfaces that preceded it. The technology would be a major influence for Jobs’ design of the first Macintosh.
Most of what follows is fairly well-known. Jobs’ Mac didn’t do well, and the company eventually removed him. Jobs went on to do his own thing, becoming a billionaire from his work with Pixar and NeXT.Inc. Apple meanwhile was struggling financially, and decided to bring Jobs back to correct course in 1997. The next year, Apple releases the iMac, and it becomes the highest selling PC in the U.S. From there, Jobs paves the way for industry dominance with new innovations like iTunes, the iPod, and the iPhone.
The reason I look up to Steve Jobs has less to do with his business savvy, and more to do with his belief system, and how uncompromising he was with his values. More than that, his failure to step outside of those values in a situation that could have saved his life teaches an equally important lesson.
1. Create Beautiful Things
Paul Jobs, Steve’s adopted father, was a handyman and influenced Jobs’ penchant for craftsmanship early in his life. While building a fence together, Paul explained that the back of the fence needed to look just as good as the front, even if no one would ever see it (3).
This may have influenced Jobs’ borderline obsessiveness when it came to how Apple products looked, inside and out. He even agonized over the way the early computers’ circuit boards looked, despite the fact that most people would never see them. He looked at computers the way some people look at fine art.
My own father is an excavator, and a damn good one at that. Watching him work is like watching a master sculptor. Instead of creating a statue, however, he creates contours in the Earth that direct the flow of water.
The point is that no matter what you do, you should look at your work as a form of artistic expression. Even an accountant sees the nuances of her work as something to be valued. True mastery can only be achieved through dedication to one’s craft.
2. Explore Things With Reckless Abandon
Jobs tried to go to college, but was uninterested by many of his classes, and decided to drop out. This, he would later say, was a great decision because afterwards he could sit in on whatever classes he wanted.
Consider this: research shows that when a child specializes in a single sport early (around age 10) he or she is less likely to be successful at the high school level than peers who participated in a multitude of sports. The reason is that multisport children develop something called physical literacy. Physical literacy is a set of fundamental movement skills and sports skills that are best developed through exposure to a wide range of sports. It’s not surprising then when we learn that most professional athletes grew up playing more than one sport. They were able to build skills in one sport that helped them in another. And when the time came, they had the freedom to home in on the sport they loved most because they were “good enough” at multiple sports (2).
The same is true when pursuing one’s passion. Early exposure to a variety of interests helps foster curiosity and provides a foundational understanding of the world. More than that, learning is a practice of seeing connections between things like oceanography and astronomy, or cooking and painting, which could ultimately inspire a lifelong passion.
The lesson here isn’t that everyone should drop out of school, but rather that you should explore your interests in whatever ways you can. Jobs didn’t know if calligraphy would ever be of use to him, but he took it as a class anyways because he enjoyed the subtle artistry of type font. Apple would later pioneer type font on its earliest computers, creating beauty in what was once considered a mundane aspect of computing.
3. Advocate for Yourself
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people has a lot to do with their willingness to negotiate with authority rather than display deference or contempt towards them.
Gladwell cites a study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau, in which she followed several families with children in the third grade to determine if differences in parenting style played a role in socioeconomic standing.
What she found is that the wealthier parents raised their children through “concerted cultivation”. This meant that the parents played an active role in teaching their children how to interact with the world around them. They taught their kids to question and negotiate with authority. They gave their children a healthy sense of entitlement, where they felt comfortable advocating for the things they wanted in a socially acceptable way. The poorer parents, on the other hand, seemed submissive and distrusting of authority, and passed that sentiment onto their children.
Steve Jobs was a master at delivering pitches. His “reality distortion field” as Walter Isaacson calls it in his biography of Jobs, allowed him to convince people of things that weren’t necessarily true. Jobs was also incredibly charming when he wanted to be, and incredibly blunt when it came to things his employees were doing that he didn’t like (4).
4. Step outside of your story
When Jobs was informed that he had a rare form of pancreatic cancer, he decided to forgo surgery for nine months in favor of alternative treatments like acupuncture and herbal remedies (1). Doctors can’t say for sure whether or not Jobs would have survived longer if it hadn’t been for this nine month delay, but it makes the case for thinking beyond our beliefs.
Jobs was uncompromising in his pursuit of excellence, but his enduring will also a gave way to narrow-mindedness. Jobs simply couldn’t envision a reality in which he was wrong. This teaches two important lessons. First, be aware that your biggest strengths can also be your greatest weaknesses. Second, always assume that there’s something you still don’t understand. Ray Dalio writes in his book “Principles” that he’s constantly trying to prove himself wrong, because at least if he can do so, he can adequately adjust his approach. Jobs didn’t want to prove himself wrong, he wanted to believe that his way of beating cancer was the best way.
To be honest, I’m glad Jobs had character flaws. Of course, I’m not happy that it might have led him to an early grave, but it’s important to realize that genius isn’t the same as perfection. Heroes aren’t without fault, and all of the influencers in our series have their own unique shortcomings. When properly analyzed, they can be just as insightful as their successes.
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