10 Things I’ve Learned from Steve Jobs’ Life (Pt. 2)

(This is the second part of a two-part reflection on Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. You can read the first part here.)

Thanks to everyone for your feedback from yesterday’s first part. Here’s the second part. I hope you find it profitable for your own work and mission in life.

6. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

One of the amazing things about Apple products is how simple they are. From their function to their design, Apple products just work, and they are highly intuitive. I love Jobs’ attitude towards the design of his products because it articulated for me what I have felt about my own work. Two descriptions of the work that simplicity requires are worth the price of the book.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Jobs had aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them. “It takes a lot of hard work,” he said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”  (p. 343)

Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. (p. 343)

I wrestled with this question when I graduated from grad school. In a period of deconstruction and dissonance, I questioned what benefit my studies in biblical exegesis would bring to my pastoring and preaching (a question I probably should have wrestled with before I took student loans to do the degree!) A friend of mine shared the insight that the reason we needed to study and wrestle with questions that no layman in their right mind would even think about was so that we could teach from the other side of simplicity.

I couldn’t agree more, and Jobs embodied this. To make something truly simple, you must understand its complexities and come up with a solution. I think this works in the interface between theology and our contemporary life. As a pastor, I am constantly helping my people navigate the junction between heaven and earth – the stuff of the divine and the mundane. This requires an understanding of the complexity of theology and of life, and coming up with a communicative and sanctifying solution that is simple. Jobs puts words to that philosophy for me.

7. Jobs could make someone believe that they could do something that previously they thought impossible.

Again, Jobs’ insistence that what he was doing was changing the world motivated him to inspire others to believe the same. The Apple culture fondly called this Jobs’ “reality distortion field”.

Steve was so passionate about building this amazing device that would change the world…By sheer force of his personality, he changed my mind.” (pp. 114-115)

Later, the Pixar team would describe it this way:

“Steve’s got it: the power of the tongue and the web of words that catches people up. We were aware of this when we had board meetings, so we developed signals—nose scratching or ear tugs—for when someone had been caught up in Steve’s distortion field and he needed to be tugged back to reality.” (p. 240)

Isn’t this in fact one of the primary duties and tasks of a leader? To get people to believe in an alternate reality of the future, one that perhaps they don’t even think they can achieve? This is what we call vision, and it has the power to motivate and push people to do extraordinary things. In one such example, Jobs convinced the CEO of Corning Glass, Wendell Weeks, to produce a glass that had never been made…in six months. Weeks had shared with him about a theoretical glass that had been locked up in the R&D department, a glass that was scratch resistant and highly compressed. They called it “gorilla glass”. None of Corning’s plants made the glass, and Jobs convinced Weeks to convert his Kentucky plant into a gorilla glass factory. They did it in less than six months. This is the glass that would be found in the IPhone, IPod, and IPad.

However, like most strengths, out of balance, this visionary ability was also Jobs’ weakness.

To some people, calling it a reality distortion field was just a clever way to say that Jobs tended to lie. But it was in fact a more complex form of dissembling. He would assert something—be it a fact about world history or a recounting of who suggested an idea at a meeting—without even considering the truth. It came from willfully defying reality, not only to others but to himself. “He can deceive himself,” said Bill Atkinson. “It allowed him to con people into believing his vision, because he has personally embraced and internalized it.” (p. 118)

It is quite possible that the visionary ability that made him genius also killed him. When Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer, he refused to treat it or get surgery for 9 months. He believed that he could beat the cancer through the right diets and other alternative, homeopathic remedies. Jobs’ reality distortion caused him to simply ignore the fact that he was dying, and it cost him his life.

I’m most affected by this trait of Jobs because I believe that the world is hungry for visionary people. I don’t mean CEOs per se, but men and women who choose to see the potential and the future in those around them. Instead of cynicism and pessimism, believing in someone even when the person himself doesn’t. I wonder how this might affect the way we pray? I once heard it said that true intercessors believe God’s promises for the future and pray that into reality. I want to be visionary like that.

8. Jobs had no regard or patience for incompetence or human feelings for that matter.

Because Jobs believed his work was so important, it naturally caused him to demean other people’s work as less so…unless that work was a form of art that he could appreciate. Put simply, Jobs was quite the jerk. He was very open and honest about his feelings, and if he didn’t like something, he let his people know it. Often, Jobs’ folks would be subject to his rants and tantrums, and then almost in a flip of coin, he would be placated and the visionary leader that everyone admired.

The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that. (p. 462)

Walt Mueller told me once that above all things a leader must be stable. Jobs could be as mercurial and unpredictable as the launch date for one of his products. He knew how to lead people, to get them to believe, but he also knew how to destroy people, to get them to leave.

Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it,” he said. This made him charismatic and inspiring, yet also, to use the technical term, an a**hole at times. (p. 564)

This is where I diverge the most from Steve Jobs. Though I do believe that truth-telling is extremely important for the culture of an organization, and granted, I am in a different type of “business” than Apple, but mission can never be achieved at the expense of its people. Although Jobs was able to bring out the best in his people, his tantrums and insensitivity left too many casualties in his wake. He burned too many bridges, and didn’t care.

9. Jobs paid a big price for his success – and so did his family.

From an illegitimate child that he denied paternity of, to endless hours of work as the CEO of Pixar and Apple, Jobs seemingly never put a high priority on his family. He did love them, but at least to his daughters, he was not a man of his word. Jobs had tunnel vision when it came to his work, and his incredible ability to focus allowed him to drown out the needs and demands of his family. Jobs’ passion for his work and the arrogance associated with success, made him very self-centered. One of his early love interests noted the fact that it was self-centeredness that made him so difficult to love.

I think the hurt he caused his family is best summed up by his relationship with his first child, Lisa, although there was some reconciliation as he was dying from cancer.

Her relationship with her father had been built on layers of resentment. She was understandably scarred by having been pretty much abandoned by him for her first ten years. Making matters worse, she had inherited some of his prickliness and, he felt, some of her mother’s sense of grievance. (p. 551)

Jobs never had the tight-knit, invested family culture that he strived so carefully to create at Apple. Though he logged hours and hours with his design team and key lieutenants, the times with his children were rarely described. This is not to say that his children hated him. Rather, only until the end of his life did he really see them as people who truly mattered to him. He had the same pride in his son that a father should have, and sometimes his kids would accompany him on meetings or trips, but it’s clear that his real children were Apple, Pixar, and he was the grandfather to the little products they created. I can’t imagine that any success is worth that.

10. Jobs was not afraid of failure. In fact, it is his failures that set him up for success.

Finally, speaking of success, I think it’s worth listing Jobs’ greatest products/achievements over three decades:

  • The Apple II, which took Wozniak’s circuit board and turned it into the first personal computer that was not just for hobbyists.
  • The Macintosh, which begat the home computer revolution and popularized graphical user interfaces.
  • Toy Story and other Pixar blockbusters, which opened up the miracle of digital imagination.
  • Apple stores, which reinvented the role of a store in defining a brand.
  • The iPod, which changed the way we consume music.
  • The iTunes Store, which saved the music industry.
  • The iPhone, which turned mobile phones into music, photography, video, email, and web devices.
  • The App Store, which spawned a new content-creation industry.
  • The iPad, which launched tablet computing and offered a platform for digital newspapers, magazines, books, and videos.
  • iCloud, which demoted the computer from its central role in managing our content and let all of our devices sync seamlessly.
  • And Apple itself, which Jobs considered his greatest creation, a place where imagination was nurtured, applied, and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on earth. (pp. 565-566)

Yet none of this would have happened had Jobs not failed as a CEO in his first run with Apple. Had he not burned more than half of his fortune through the computer company he founded, NeXT. Especially during his time with NeXT, Jobs was able to indulge all of his instincts, both good and bad. He created some incredible products that flopped badly, and he learned from this.

For a man who achieved so much, there were no short cuts. He did not just rise meteorically to great success on the rockets of his own ability and genius intuition. Rather, through failure Jobs learned his own weaknesses and the destruction that his strengths, if unchecked, could bring about. And amidst all of that, he never lost his passion to fuse technology and art.

I find this to be the greatest inspiration of Jobs’ life to me personally. He was not afraid of failure, and he was focused on his dream of making great products. His passion for his work drove him to incredible work, but also incredible failure. I meet so many folks today who are so afraid of failure that they don’t attempt anything. They would rather sit back and slip into obscurity than ever be put on the spot for failure. It may seem like the safer play, but do you see how it’s really not safe at all? It costs you your vitality, your passion, and your dreams. It makes the work you’re doing now unimportant. I think the question that Jobs raised to a critical tech reviewer, Ryan Tate, bears asking. After responding to Tate’s criticism that Apple was too controlling when it came to their apps, Jobs closed,

By the way, what have you done that’s so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others’ work and belittle their motivations?” (p. 517)

While I don’t pretend that I’ll ever be anything like Steve Jobs, I do want my work to matter, and what work could be more important than the new creational, soul-transforming, community-developing, injustice-battling work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Steve Jobs’ life has challenged me to take my call seriously – the call to my church, my family, my relationships, and my God. Failure or not, I know that my worth and identity is secured by the righteousness of a Savior who took my unrighteousness upon himself. I want to, therefore, lead people, mission, and my family so that at the end of my life, I will have no regrets about the work I did, the way I did it, and who I became as a result of it.

3 thoughts on “10 Things I’ve Learned from Steve Jobs’ Life (Pt. 2)

  1. There is an interesting sentence in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.” (page 27 in my version)

    I’ve always been puzzled by this sentence, among several others in this particular book of his. Maybe I’m missing something completely, but is Bonhoeffer addressing a particular kind of visionary-ness, or being visionary in general?

  2. Hmmm…I’ll have to look up the context of that quote. My immediate reaction is to suspect that Bonhoeffer is wary of the predominant visionary of his day, one Adolph Hitler. Let me look it up and see what I can make of it.

  3. Pingback: Steve Jobs (repost) « Echoes of the Myth

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