Steve Jobs is a household name. His innovative and creative work has revolutionized our world, from the MacBook to the iPhone, to Siri and the Toy Story trilogy. Prior to reading Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, I had general assumptions about Jobs: he was a genius, he was an asshole, and he changed the world. To an extent, all three are true. However, there is more depth and complexity to his personality and character. After reading 600 pages about his life and legacy, here are the four biggest life lessons I learned from reading Steve Job’s biography.
In Order to Change the World, You Must Become Obsessed
Jobs’ life and work were not separate entities—they were one. From the onset of his career, Jobs became obsessed with the mission to create great products. He obsessed over design details with the original Macintosh computer. He pushed his employees to their absolute limit in order to achieve the perfect product. He wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection because he was obsessed with making great products, not mediocre or average ones.
“In one of our marketing meetings, just as the stores were opening, Steve made us spend a half hour deciding what hue of gray the restroom signs should be.” This is Lee Clow, an Apple employee, recalling preparation for launching Apple Stores. Jobs made all of the major decisions in designing the signature stores. He didn’t need to. But he wanted to. He was obsessed.
Jobs was constantly thinking about ways to improve. It wasn’t unusual for Jobs to send emails to his team at 2:00 a.m., or to call a staff member at 4:00 a.m. to discuss a breakthrough or idea. It wasn’t unusual for Jobs to work insane hours.
Making great products was not work in Jobs’ mind. It was his mission. It was his obsession. The intersection of groundbreaking technology and humanities, fully integrated with an elegant design, was what made him come alive. He lived and breathed what he did, both at Apple and Pixar.
Of course, there were tradeoffs for Job’s obsession with empowering human kind and advancing humanity. However, this obsession, and the perspective of work and life as one, was essential for Jobs to revolutionize the world the way he did.
Your Greatest Strength Can Be Your Greatest Weakness—and vice Versa
Jobs is well known for his reality distortion field, a term coined to describe how he could create his own version of reality and make others believe it. He believed reality was malleable and therefore convinced his employees to complete deadlines in astounding time.
“This made him charismatic and inspiring, yet also, to use the technical term, an asshole at times,” said Isaacson. “He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible. And he created a corporation crammed with A players.”
Jobs’ fierce determination and refusal to consider other people’s opinions allowed him to innovate and break past barriers that had never been previously crossed. However, these strengths backfired on him a few times.
When designing the iPhone 4, Jobs insisted on using a piece of aluminum that engineers warned would block the antenna and interfere with cellular service. Jobs ignored the advice and went ahead anyway, as he wasn’t willing to compromise on the design he envisioned. The iPhone 4 suffered as a result and Apple received criticism for this flaw, which was caused by the steel band that Jobs wouldn’t remove. Yet, the sleek design of the iPhone 4 remained a critical element of success for the iPhones we enjoy today.
While Jobs could both berate people and praise people, his charisma, hold-nothing-back mentality and belief in his vision were what allowed him to build the world’s most creative company.
By learning about Jobs’ character and traits, I began to look within myself, analyzing my own strengths and weaknesses. What area in your life do you naturally excel in? What do you gravitate towards? What comes easier to you than to most people? Focus on these areas and see how you can magnify them. Be aware of the Achilles heel. Your strength can also reveal your weakness—however, you can identify vulnerabilities and see how they can be used as strengths.
While Jobs could be a complete asshole, he created a culture that accepted nothing less than great work and A-team players.
Focus Is Key to Rapid Innovation
“If he did not want to deal with something, he would resolutely ignore it. That focus allowed him to say ‘no.’ He got Apple back on Track by cutting all except a few products.”
One of the most fascinating and noteworthy traits of Jobs was his relentless focus. When Jobs had his eye set on a prize, he would laser focus on doing whatever it took to complete. Along with his obsession—or as a result of it—he would delegate all his energy to completing the task at hand. Jobs’ reality distortion field played a large role in Apple’s ability to complete complex, challenging, and “never-been-done-before” goals in astounding time. He would almost infuse other employees with his desire and relentless focus.
In his dying months, Larry Page—Google Co-founder—arranged to meet with Jobs to learn some lessons from the world’s most iconic CEO at the time. Jobs recalled telling Page:
“The main thing I stressed was focus. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest because they’re dragging you down.”
Jobs’ ability to focus on just a handful of products at a time allowed him to create truly revolutionary products. He allocated his energy, resources, time, and focus on a few special products, as opposed to ten or twenty.
In today’s digital world, it’s so easy to become distracted. The average American checks their phone 150 times a day. Reading Jobs’ advice on focus emphasized how important it is to hone in on a project and be disciplined to say “no” to outside distractions.
This was a powerful reminder for me to consciously create the space necessary for me to do great work—and free myself from distraction. I was able to write my book—first draft was 106,000 words—in three months by not checking my phone or email until after my writing for the day. This discipline and focus allowed me to write at a fast pace and at a high level of quality that wouldn’t have been possible if I was spread thin on other projects and constantly being distracted.
Trust Your Intuition
Jobs was not exceptionally smart, according to Isaacson. However, he was a genius. He was what mathematician Mark Kac tagged a magician genius. “Someone whose insights comes out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power.”
Jobs cared about putting together ideas, art, and technology to create great products and invent the future. Prior to the first Apple store opening in 2001, many experts agreed that creating an Apple store was a terrible idea. Business Week even headlined a story that reads “Sorry Steve, Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work.” Jobs would have the last laugh. He trusted his intuition that the world would love, and eventually need, an Apple retail store. In 2004, Apple had over $1-billion in revenue, setting a record in the retail industry.
Time and time again, product after product, Jobs relied on his intuition to make major decisions and innovations. While there are certain times to proceed with skepticism and conduct market research, intuition is a powerful tool we all have; we just need to listen to it and channel it, like Jobs.
“The products, not the profits, were the motivation,” said Jobs. “People don’t know what they want until you show them. That’s why I never rely on market research.”
Steve Jobs revolutionized the world. His obsession to ‘put a dent in the universe,’ belief in creating the future, relentless focus, and trust in his intuition changed how our society communicates and creates. We can all learn from his life and emulate his good qualities, yet avoid the bad ones. Of everything Jobs ever said, we should all think about the famous words he spoke at the 2005 Stanford graduation:
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
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Jake Heilbrunn is the author of Off the Beaten Trail, an inspiring memoir about his journey leaving college and solo backpacking through Central America at 18 with no phone or knowledge of Spanish. An emerging leader of his generation, he has reached thousands of people through his blog posts, inspirational videos, and motivational talks at high schools, colleges, and other venues. He is dedicated to empowering people to live a life of purpose through listening to their inner voice, heeding their intuition and then taking action.