I’m a bit late with this post, because it took me a long time to get it right. But finally here, we go, this is what I have to say after having read Steve Jobs’s biography and like any person with a blog, I need to write about it.
This is one great biography, I really really enjoyed it. It’s telling me a story, it’s almost always giving me different sides of every event and most importantly, it’s not just giving us Steve’s thoughts, but those of many many people around him as well. I can’t even picture how much work must’ve gone into putting all of this together, to me it’s amazing. By comparison, I recently read Al Pacino’s Biography, which was nothing close to this as a book. That was about 10% story, 90% word-for-word interviews with Pacino. Interesting as that is, I much prefer being told a story. And some story this one is. Congrats to Isaacson all the way ( I can see why Jobs picked him)!
I see a lot of people online that are reacting very negatively after reading this biography and it’s really bugging me, but I will try to keep my anti-rant rant as short as possible. I had actually written several lengthy paragraphs going over why being “angry” at Jobs’s character is wrong on multiple levels, but I decided to cut them out. I think it was a manifestation of “someone is wrong on the Internet syndrom” and I am trying to treat myself from that.
Instead, I’ll tell you a few stories from my own life. In college I was very lucky to work with a few people that were similar to Jobs. No, they wouldn’t shout obscenities at students and wouldn’t drive without a license plate. What I mean when I say that they were like Jobs is that they pushed their students to do more than they felt comfortable doing. I’m thinking of one or two professors and two teaching assistants (I’m not naming them because I don’t think they want the publicity, good as it may be). Today and always, I thank them and I can only hope to work with such people in the future.
You would go into their office with what you would think was your greatest idea ever and they would convince you that it wasn’t good enough and make you leave that office with something that was ten times more difficult and a hundred times more awesome. You would be upset for a day, concerned for a few weeks as to how you were ever going to pull it off… but you’d get on with it and that’s just the thing! They wouldn’t just throw you the idea, they would stick with it and find ways to push you and motivate you until you actually got that new idea done, while it often kept getting transformed into something even better as it progressed.
Or, you would go and do a presentation in front of them and they would not only criticise your slides and text, but tiny details like the way you moved your hands, looked at the audience and projected your voice. I helped with some of that work, as a teaching assistant during my graduate year and there came a point where we knew that we were criticizing stellar presentations, but we still pushed people to make something better by next time. And you know what? THEY DID that, every single time.
Freshmen year, I was working on my first major project in university. It was 2am, I had 90% done, there was just a bit more needed to have it all finished, but I was feeling tired, hungry and sleepy, I just wanted to go home. My TA stopped by the lab and convinced me to go the extra mile and finish the thing. I cringed, I opened a new box of almonds (I must’ve eaten something like a pound of almonds that night) and I got back to it. It was 4am when I finally headed home, but the next day I was the only one with a 100% working project.
Sure, the experience would be frustrating at times. Some people wouldn’t go on with it, they would quit (and that’s why Jobs wanted “A players”… it’s a challenging environment and not everyone does well in it). Sometimes I also felt they were exaggerating. Sometimes I got angry, I would get into arguments with them, I’d try to push back on the constant pressure. But in the end, I ended up doing more than I would have ever been able to do without them pushing me. When we were working with those students for their senior projects, the results they produced under this pressure were absolutely astonishing. We knew they were A-players to begin with, but what they made blew my mind. As I watched the final presentations I could see numerous potential startups on screen. It was incredible and it would never have happened without those people leading them.
If you’ve never worked with someone like that, you can’t understand how incredible it is. You look back months or years later and you see yourself having done things that you thought – you KNEW – were impossible. You may be tired, exhausted, crying, but you have an overwhelming positive feeling of “godly” power. You went beyond any limit you thought was possible and you delivered what you never thought you could. Trust me when I say that if you work with a person that can take you on such a trip and you want to go the distance, you are willing to put up with a lot of negative stuff from them just to be able to go on. I’m not saying that the negative is necessary (the people I was mentioning above are among the most polite and kind that I have met), but things in life are never perfect and sometimes that’s what you get in the box. Or are you genuinely expecting someone who builds a multi-million dollar company from the ground-up before he’s 30 to be humble and not at all arrogant?
So what’s my take on the reaction that people have following the biography? To be honest I’m a bit sad that it’s so negative. The negative stuff had been known for a long time, it’s the good bits that I feel are just coming out now. Unlike most of “the Internet”, I like Jobs a whole lot more after reading it because I got to glimpse a bit into how he ticked and how he did what he did. I also find it a bit disconcerting that people would so easily give Steve up just because they now realize his “reality distortion field” extended all the way to their homes, making them think he is some kind of genius-angel. He wasn’t. But that’s irrelevant. What matter is what he WAS and what he DID, not what people imagined that he may have been. And if you’re writing your criticism about a person you’ve had no contact with from a Macbook or an iPad, well… that reminds me of the great courtoom scene in “A few good men”. Just say thank you and go on your way.
I’ve read some people online expressing fear that a lot of entrepreneurs will try to imitate Jobs’s style in order to copy his success. I find this fear to be completely unwarranted. If you think that being a jerk to your employees will turn your company into Apple, this is quite probably not your only issue to begin with. Really, it’s a dumb fear. People won’t just start doing that and if that’s all they get out of the book, they probably wouldn’t exactly have taken over the world to begin with.
What’s more realistic though is buying into Steve’s thoughts regarding manners of innovation. This is where the debate gets interesting. Should you try to copy Steve by giving people what they don’t yet know they want (or in other words, try and guess what people will want next)? Or follow the more traditional path of market research? Should you buy into the closed-system paradigm that Apple has made so succesful, or the open one that’s being pushed by other companies (also doing quite well with numerous other examples)?
I think here again, simply copying Jobs or Apple is a stupid idea. My take on it is that it’s great to see Steve’s example. He made those things work. He made closed-systems work, he made the “screw market research” approach work. He clearly shows us that it is POSSIBLE to go about innovation in that way, even though most people and most companies don’t do it. That by itself doesn’t mean that you should or should not try to do the same. I think it’s great that you have this example (and he’s not alone, there are numerous other famous innovators that have taken a similar approach) and that you can see it was done successfully. If you think you have what it takes, you should now have more confidence in trying to do it. But before you go and bet everything on this idea, I think you need to make sure you understand the kind of talent that goes with taking this approach and then make a decision based on that.
Some things in the book are definitely take-away messages in my opinion and here’s what they are:
- Focus on great products, not profit. The former will lead to the latter, but not the other way around.
- As a leader, at any leve, you have to push people to better themselves. You don’t have to be a jerk, do it in your own way, but you have to push people.
- It’s not always bad to be a perfectionist, if it shows in your work.
- You’re not Jobs. Make sure you keep that in mind whenever you try to use him as an example. He was talented and maybe you are as well! But he was also lucky and he was at the right place at the right time. Those are things you cannot just copy. That said, if you feel you have your environment working for you, there’s nothing wrong in getting some inspiration from his life and work.