The Startup
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The Startup

Why Steve Jobs Was Proud to Steal

Photo: Getty Images

Had he suffered from one of the most common creative syndromes, Steve Jobs might never have even considered visiting the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1979. He might never have seen what he almost immediately recognized as the future of personal computing, a graphical user interface PARC had developed, designed to look like a desktop and convert traditional computer command lines and DOS prompts into icons of folders and documents that a user could point to and click open by using something Xerox called a mouse. He might never have embraced Pablo Picasso’s quote that “good artists copy, great artists steal” and taken the Xerox interface for Apple’s use, boasting later that “we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

And had Jobs’s hand-picked lead designer and eventual “partner in crime” Jonathan Ive likewise suffered from it, he might never have “stolen” the design stylings and aesthetics of Dieter Rams, genius designer of Braun fame.

But Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive were immune to it, as great artists are, and as a result achieved an unparalleled level of co-created product design that produced world-changing commercial elegance.

The “it” is NIH, a well-known acronym in business literature for “Not Invented Here” syndrome, and they wore their immunity like a badge of honor. Perhaps rightly so, because neuroscience now confirms that embracing the ideas of others is both more difficult and less rewarding than coming up with our own.

“Not Invented Here” (NIH) syndrome.

If you’re not familiar with NIH, it is defined as an automatic negative perception of, and visceral aversion to, concepts and solutions developed somewhere else, somewhere external to the individual or team, often resulting in an unnecessary reinvention of the wheel. It means “If I/we didn’t come up with it, I/we won’t consider it,” and “I/we can do anything you/they can do better.”

The expression of NIH is always the same: shutting out another person’s or group’s idea immediately and without due consideration merely because they came up with it. (The next time you’re in the lobby waiting for the elevator to go up to your office or hotel room, count how many people hit the Up button even though they can see that you’ve already pushed it. That’s NIH.)

When advertising executive Alex Osborn introduced the world to brainstorming over half a century ago, he proposed four rules for applying one’s imagination, two of which focused on preventing idea rejection: defer judgment, and build on others’ ideas. Osborne was well aware of NIH before it was called NIH, and unfortunately, his rules have had little effect on our tendency to do just the opposite: impose judgment and reject others’ ideas.

Wikipedia offers a good starting point for understanding what drives NIH, stating that a concept developed by others is often rejected because people “don’t take the time to understand it fully before rejecting it; because they would have to embrace new concepts in infrastructure or terminology; because they believe they can produce a superior product; or because they would not get as much credit for finding an existing solution as inventing a new one.”

A study of the literature devoted to NIH reveals that it is above all a predisposition — acquired attitude or bias — arising out of perceived burden, mental load, or possible threat.

NIH is tied to domains of knowledge and activity you believe you own. If you’re the expert, you should be the one with all the great ideas, or so the thinking goes. Irrational as it may be, if someone else gets an idea or conjures up a solution that lies within your domain of expertise, you somehow get a sense of diminished capacity: “I should have thought of that!” Fear then creeps in if you feel as though others may perceive you to be somehow less of an expert, especially if those others happen to be bosses, employers, or clients. That’s when you double down on defensive maneuvers like NIH to protect your status, position, or power base.

The neuroscience of NIH

Here’s the thing: The biology of your brain may play a big part in NIH, for a few reasons. First, we now know that processing new concepts (of any origin) places a heavy load on the prefrontal cortex. The brain, though, is wired to preserve mental resources, so by nature you resist new ideas almost automatically, not because the ideas are bad, but because you would rather not expend the enormous energy it takes to focus attention and make new neural connections.

In other words, the feeling is uncomfortable, so you avoid it.

Second, your brain doesn’t get the same chemical reward from other people’s ideas as it does from your own. When you solve a problem yourself, at the moment of insight around which new and complex connections are made, the brain releases an adrenaline-like rush of neurochemicals, delivering a positively stimulating experience.

So while it seems like stealing ideas from others is easy and lazy, it isn’t. In a counterintuitive way, coming up with our own ideas is cognitively easier and more rewarding than embracing, assimilating, and exploiting the ideas of others.

This may explain why Steve Jobs was so proud of stealing … perhaps he knew he was going against human nature, and thinking harder and better than others might.

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Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May


Senior GTM advisor at Insight Partners. Co-author, What a Unicorn Knows: How Leading Entrepreneurs Use Lean Principles to Drive Sustainable Growth (Q1 2023).