Advice From Steve Jobs on Your Journey
by Tom Triumph, Featured Contributor
“Hi Steve,” I said while shaking his hand. “Thanks for all the work and all the great products.” He looked at me, smiled slightly and nodded.
There are a few things I know for certain about life. Here is one of them. You come into the world a helpless naked baby, and you leave the world and take nothing with you. Hopefully, the middle is filled with many years of living a full life and making a positive difference. A beginning, an end, and “let’s see what the heck you can do in the middle.”
There are probably a few more things I know with certainty, like I love my family and chocolate mousse is delicious, but no more come to mind. Call me “master of the obvious.”
Kevin Welch summarized it pretty well, “There will be two dates on your tombstone and all your friends will read them. But all that is going to matter is that little dash between them.”
The dash is where it’s at, and if you’re like me, you probably want to live a great dash. Certainly it will have its share of ups and downs. Great work and bad work. Great bosses and bad bosses. Some amazing experiences, and some very bad experiences. All in all, it will make an interesting journey. Maybe even a “Hero’s Journey.”
The Heroes Journey was introduced by Joseph Campbell, an American author and lecturer, who’d written a number of books on mythology, including, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and “The Power of Myth.” Campbell summarized the Hero’s Journey as, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
That storyline should sound familiar. George Lucas’ Star Wars saga was heavily influenced by the book. As was The Lion King, The Hobbit, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Matrix and countless other stories.
Which brings me to Steve Jobs, and the dash between his years, which was a Hero’s Journey.
In 1995 Steve was interviewed at length by Robert Cringely, a journalist and former Apple employee. At the time, Steve was CEO of NeXT Computer and Pixar. It was 18 months before he’d return to Apple, and two years before he’d take over as Apple CEO. After taping the interview, the master tape was sent overseas, and went missing. A VHS copy was found 17 years later, and the film was release in 2012 in its entirety as Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview.
You can learn a tremendous amount by watching the interview, and I would urge you to do so.
Steve candidly discusses his thoughts and experiences. His sincerity is palpable. His answers are full of insights and advice. Looking back, we know that Steve was somewhere in the middle of his Hero’s Journey. You are likely somewhere in the middle of yours. His thoughts and advice are sure to be helpful in your quest.
1) On focus and money
“It’s very interesting. I was worth over a million dollars when I was 23, and over $10 million when I was 24, and over $100 million when I was 25. And, it wasn’t that important. Because I never did it for the money.
It’s easy to chase the wrong thing. To get transfixed on a shiny object (money, title, whatever), and lose sight of what you really want your life to be about. Not that money isn’t important. But relatively speaking, not so much.
Steve went on to say,
The most important thing was the company, the people, the product we were making. What we were going to enable people to do with these products.”
Good advice. Focus on the people and the work.
2) Be enthusiastic (even if it blinds you)
It’s sometimes good to be obsessive (I hope my family reads this). Steve was known for being extremely enthusiastic about new products that he thought could and should change the world.
He talked about visiting Xerox PARC, and how he missed two of the three revolutionary things he was shown, because he was so enamored with the first thing that fired his imagination.
They showed me really three things. But I was so blinded by the first one, that I didn’t even really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was Object Oriented Programming. They showed me that, but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me, really a network computer system. I didn’t even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. And within you know, ten minutes, it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this someday.”
3) Getting through the inevitable road blocks
I’ve had my share of obstacles, problems and challenges. Want proof that everyone has his or her share? Here’s how Steve described his team’s embrace of the computer mouse.
Well, I got our best people together and started working on this. …and they didn’t get this idea. They didn’t get it. I remember having dramatic arguments with some of these people. I remember arguing with these folks, people screaming at me that it would take us 5 years to engineer a mouse and cost $300 to build. And I finally got fed up and just went outside and found David Kelly design, and asked him to design me a mouse, and in 90 days we had a mouse that we could build for 15 bucks that was phenomenally reliable.”
4) Process versus product
The interviewer suggests to Steve that perhaps there’s a dark side to corporations. Steve responds by explaining the difference between doing things efficiently, and doing the right thing.
It’s that people get confused. Companies get confused. When they start getting bigger, they want to replicate their initial success. And a lot of them think, ‘well, somehow there’s some magic in the process of how that success was created.’ So they start to institutionalize process across the company. And before very long, people get very confused that the process is the content. In my career, I’ve found that the best people are the ones that really understand the content. And they’re a pain in the butt to manage. But you know, you put up with it, because they’re so great at the content. That’s what makes great products. It’s not process, it’s content.”
5) On the reality of the grind
After a long thoughtful pause, Steve talks about HOW great products are made. A wonderful answer, forged in the real world of sweating and arguing the details, and pushing the product towards what’s possible. The very first sentence alone is worth the price of admission, and embodies his ethos for bringing a great product to market.
There’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there’s tremendous trade-offs that you have to make. I mean you know there are just certain things you can’t make electrons do, there are certain things you can’t make plastic do, or glass or factories do, or robots do. And as you get into all these things, designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain, these concepts, and fitting them all together and continually to push to fit them together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently. And it’s that process… that is the magic.”
6) A metaphor for team interaction (and friction) in making a great product
Metaphors, or stories, can become the framework for our understanding. Steve describes an experience he had as a kid, and uses it as a metaphor for moving from a prototype to a beautiful finished quality product. It’s an analogy that resonated with me, as I experienced the exact same thing after receiving a rock tumbler for Christmas as a little kid. After weeks (in my case) of polishing, it was the same wide-eyed amazing results.
This may be the best description I’ve ever heard as to why it’s imperative to actively engage as a team throughout the development process.
When I was a young kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street. And he was in his 80s, he was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might have asked me to mow his lawn or something. And one day he said “come on into my garage, I want to show you something”. And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me”. And we went out to the back and we got some rocks. Just some regular, old, ugly rocks.
And we put them in the can, with a little bit of liquid, and a little bit of grit powder. And we closed the can up. And he turned the motor on, and said, “come back tomorrow.” And this can was making, you know a racket as the stones went around.
And I came back the next day, and we opened the can and we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this — creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.
And that’s always been in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. That it’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas. And what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”
7) On hiring the best people
Most things in life, the dynamic range between average and the best is at most 2 to 1. Right, like if you go to NY City, and you get an average taxi cab driver versus the best taxi cab driver, you’re probably going to get to your destination with the best taxi cab driver like maybe 30% faster. You know, an automobile — what’s the difference between average and the best? Maybe, I don’t know, 20%? The best CD player and an average CD Player? I don’t know, 20%? So 2 to 1 is a big big dynamic range in most of life. In software, and it used to be the case in hardware too, the difference between average and the best is 50 to 1. Maybe 100 to 1. Ok. Very few things in life are like this. But what I was lucky enough to spend my life in, is like this. And so, I’ve built a lot of my success off finding these truly gifted people and not settling for B and C players, but really going for the A player.”
8) On being direct
Steve could be brutally blunt, demanding and hard to please. Although perhaps an innate characteristic, he describes his thinking underlying his approach.
The most important thing I think you can do for someone who is really good and is being counted on, is to point out to them when their work isn’t good enough. And to do it very clearly and to articulate why and to get them back on track. And you need to do that in a way that does not call into question your confidence in their abilities, but leaves not too much room for interpretation that the work they’ve done for this particular thing is not good enough to support the goal of the team. And that’s a hard thing to do. And I’ve always taken a very direct approach.”
9) On being wrong
Steve could be stubborn and insistent. Yet would change his mind if presented with a convincing argument otherwise. As an example, years later Steve was adamant that Apple wouldn’t sell apps from 3rd parties, until he was eventually convinced otherwise.
I don’t care about being right. I just care about success. So, you’ll find a lot of people that will tell you I’ve had a very strong opinion and they’ve presented evidence to the contrary, and 5 minutes later I’ve completed changed my mind. .. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”
10) His evident passion for product aesthetic and culture
When the conversation turns to Microsoft, it’s fascinating to hear Steve articulate his fully-formed ethos that a product be more than merely useful. That a product should be a work of craftsmanship, art and subtlety — while providing real value to the user.
I have a problem with the fact that they (Microsoft) just make really third-rate products. Their products have no spirit to them. Their products have no sort of spirit of enlightenment about them. They are very pedestrian. And the sad part is most customers don’t have a lot of that spirit either. But the way that we’re going to ratchet up our species is to take the best and to spread it around to everybody, so that everybody grows up with better things. And starts to understand the subtlety of these better things.”
11) Why Steve Jobs was relentless
That of all the inventions of humans, the computer is going to rank near, if not at the top as history unfolds and we look back. And it is the most awesome tool that we have every invented. And I feel incredibly lucky to be at exactly the right place in Silicon Valley, at exactly the right time historically where this invention has taken form. And as you know, when you set a vector off in space, if you can change its direction a little bit at the beginning it gets dramatic when it gets a few miles out in space. I feel that we are still really at the beginning of that vector, and if we can nudge it in the right directions it will be a much better thing as it progresses on.”
That was some of the thinking that led to a brilliant dash between the year of Steve’s birth and death. The dash that was truly, a “Hero’s Journey” of mythical proportion.
I’m going to take those lessons, combine them with my experiences, and add them to my dash.
My sincerest hope is that you do too. And maybe someone will come up to you and shake your hand, and say “Thanks for all the great work and all the great products.” And you’ll smile slightly and nod.