I’ve watched Steve Jobs for more than 30 years as he’s reshaped one industry after another with pioneering computers and electronic devices. His vision and flair for innovation is legendary–and rare in corporate America. Processes and systems dominate in most companies, and we’re brainwashed over time to play it safe with our programs and products and color within the lines. Meanwhile Jobs kept ignoring the critics, swinging for the fences and connecting.
What can we mere mortals learn from the planet’s most famous businessman? Below is a starting list of lessons I’ve cobbled from my studying Jobs, and I’m sure there are plenty more (feel free to chime in).
1. Keep it simple
Most consumer products are far too complex. Why? Because they’re designed by engineers, and they want to include every button and feature possible (Think of Microsoft Windows or a typical TV remote). Jobs insisted on simplicity in all his designs and a minimalist approach to create seamless customer experiences.
“We tried to make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex … But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.” [MSNBC and Newsweek interview, Oct. 14, 2006]
2. Design and quality
Jobs had a passion for elegant, sleek but practical designs, going back to the original Macs. Apple’s devices had to look and operate in his vision — which meant flawlessly. (“Design” also meant how it worked.)
Jobs relied on his own intuition and sense of design, and that of his team, rather than his customers’ feedback. This goes back to his roots at Apple with the original Macintosh.
“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.”
3. Sweat the details
Jobs insisted that Apple nail every single detail — it might be the letters in a logo or the exact wording in a speech (one of his speechwriters said he’d call on Sunday nights to rework a speech or refine specific phrases). This enormous attention to detail separated him and Apple from competitors, such as the Microsoft-based PC.
“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
4. Cut your losses
The successful companies I’ve worked for had one common feature: they were results driven and they cut their losses. Programs that failed to meet objectives were quickly killed, compared to other companies that hung on to losers. When Jobs took over Apple again in 1997, he killed off dozens of cash-draining programs that didn’t meet his central vision such as the Newton. He was likely despised and feared by engineers wedded to their projects, but he wasn’t there to make friends-he was out to save a company.
This means never becoming complacent, never accepting second place.
As Jobs said in the 2005 Commencement speech at Stanford, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
5. Be persistent
I recently saw a study that showed that patience and persistence was one of the leading indicators of whether someone will be successful in life or not (the study followed people starting early in life for over 20 years). Do you have the stamina and willpower to keep pushing ahead for months, years, decades when you truly believe in a vision?
Jobs never gave up. After being pushed out at Apple in 1985, he returned 12 years later. He fought against the mainstream PC market long after many people had written off Apple, and has stuck to the helm as CEO the last few years to see his vision through, even as his health has failed.
6. Think ahead of your customers
Jobs was always a few steps ahead of the market, always thinking of their next needs. Visionaries don’t rely on customers. They see the needs and market opportunities first; they think ahead.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Take desktop video editing. I never got one request from someone who wanted to edit movies on his computer. Yet now that people see it, they say, ‘Oh my God, that’s great!’” [Fortune, January 24 2000]
And there’s this gem from 1985: “The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it to a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people — as remarkable as the telephone.” [Playboy, Feb. 1, 1985]
Technology is a brutal business, and you have to truly believe in your vision to see it through. As my (late) Dad used to say, “Things always work out, you just don’t know how.”
Steve Jobs was more eloquent in his 2005 commencement speech:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
What Jobs’ lessons can you apply? Can you simplify a product or program to its bare essence? Can you cut your losers, and focus on one single priority? Can you cut through the noise and visualize a future product/program ahead of your customers?
Above all, can you follow your passion?
What lessons have you learned from Steve Jobs?
- The Life and Career of Steve Jobs (johnchow.com)
- What Will You Miss Most About Steve Jobs? (pbs.org)
- What I Learned From Steve Jobs (forbes.com)
- VIDEO: The Life and Career of Steve Jobs. The NMA version… (kobn.wordpress.com)
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