Yearly Focus

Steve Jobs – Exemplar Review

This year I picked Steve Jobs as my exemplar since I think he demonstrates the trait I am focusing on learning about, ‘forecasting’ or better predicting what will happen in the future.

I write these reviews following a review template to help me get the most out of the process of having an exemplar. Below is my entry for Steve Jobs.

What did Steve Jobs achieve?

He made the computer personal and helped increased the total addressable market by a few orders of magnitude.

Why did he care about that?

Jobs really cared about high quality products and he didn’t feel like anyone was making those in the computer space. He also wanted/needed money at various points. He also wanted to spite some people that doubted him or turned against him at various points. He was complicated.

How did he think about the world differently than his contemporaries?

As a funny meta-point, I wrote the template for my exemplar reviews about 5 years ago, but ‘thinking differently’ seems perfectly appropriate for Steve Jobs, who used a similar turn of phrase in a very popular marketing campaign for Apple.

There are two big things that stand out to me as ways Steve Jobs thought differently than his contemporaries:

  1. He believed in making things easier to use. He was a great judge of usability and constantly pushed the limits of what technology could do in order to achieve a more usable interface.
  2. He believed in the power of computer technology. Depending on what group you compare him to, this might not seem so unique, if you look at him against his peers of tech founders and CEOs, that might seem common, but if you look at him across the general population born in the 1950s, he really stands out. He was an early proponent of multiple tools that have disrupted how we interact with the world: the personal computer, graphical user interfaces, word processing, internet productivity, etc.

What are a few of Jobs’ behaviors that helped him?

  1. He was extremely focused, preferring to do one thing really well rather than a bunch of things to a mediocre degree.
  2. He was really good at convincing people of his vision. Something sometimes called the ‘reality distortion field’.
  3. He was a strong judge of usability and rejected designs that didn’t meet his standard.
  4. He worked really hard, letting his projects take over his mind space.

What are some of the decisions he made that contributed to his success?

He hung around smart people that taught him things and let him flex his mind.

He founded a company with one of those smart people, Steve Wozniak, to make personal computers for the common person.

He invested $5 Million to buy a majority stake in the Lucasfilm Graphics Group, which would later go on to become Pixar, which he sold to Disney for $7.4 Billion.

He sold his company NeXT computers to Apple and decided to help them get back on track by cutting most of the projects and focusing on a computer called the iMac and laptop called the iBook. Those went on to revive the company.

He realized his computers were weak in serving the CUJs around music listening and so he invested heavily into iTunes and the iPod, which ended up creating a new market.

He realized mobile phones were going to take over the music space and cannibalize his iPod, so he decided to get into the phone business with a device called the iPhone.

What was one thing about the Steve Jobs’ life journey that is encouraging to me?

I love the fact that Jobs was ousted from Apple Computers in 1985 and then was able to return triumphantly 12 years later and lead it through 14 amazing years. It just sort of goes to show you that you can have huge downs and still have bigger ups again.

What is one thing about Jobs’ life that makes me feel like I should do more with mine?

In reading about Jobs it seems like he often had this notion that he was living on borrowed time and that he needed to make the most of it. He tried to do as much as he could with his time on Earth, and as a result, was able to do a lot.

What did Jobs believe about the world that I have already reflected on?

Jobs always saw the future through rose colored glasses, imagining how good it could be if it were designed well. He had this almost relentless optimism about the future and what he could do. As I reflect on how he probably felt, he probably wasn’t that happy with most of them – he likely constantly saw how they needed to be better and how he could get them there.

In many ways, that is how I am with goal setting. I fail at most things I try to do, but that is usually because I set goals that are unachievable and then I come up 10% short, which is probably better off than I would have been if I’d set a reasonable goal.

Which of his motivations have I reflected most on?

Jobs is a hard guy to nail down the motivations of. I think the healthiest of his motivations is the desire to make great products that are really usable. That act of creation is beautiful and its something he really used to motivate himself. He could then look towards artists and artisans for motivation and inspiration when he needed to be topped up, something he did on trips to Japan or by listening to Bob Dylan music. There is something cool about having a source of motivation that is so handily recharged.

What is one of his behaviors that I would like to try out this year?

I am going to eat nothing but carrots for a week like Jobs did. Just kidding.

I actually really liked how he pushed himself to live in the future a bit. At one point in the 2000 he spent a bunch of money to have his house set up with Gigabit internet, long before that was really a common thing, so he could experience what it would be like for everyone in the future. I’m sure he picked up a few things from it that helped him build products that solved the needs of the future.

What decision making heuristics can I adopt from Jobs’ experience?

You know, I can’t think of very many heuristics I spotted reading about him. He seemed to just gravitate towards brilliant people, pushing limits and working on things that were the future. He would then go all-in on those things. Interestingly, he was wrong about as often as he was right, but when he was right, he was really right and let him paper over the mistakes a bit.

What are some of his failures I can avoid repeating?

I’m going to break this into two distinct areas: professional and relational.

Professionally there were a few times where his pursuit of excellence didn’t take into account the budget of his potential buyer and he ended up building something that was either too expensive or had to be scaled back to a point where it wasn’t very good at doing the thing it was really supposed to do. The NeXT and Macintosh both fell into this camp. The iPhone very well could have, but the first version, as stripped down as it was, was able to get enough traction to let the next few versions get to a more feature-complete state and the markets have accepted buying a $1k phone every few years. Making sure there is a market and that the product will be buyable is probably P0 where as great usability is P1. That said, clearly it worked for him, maybe its better to get really good at building great products and know you’ll strike out once in a while, but when you do connect, it will be a home run. I guess that works as long as your batting average is >.500.

Relationally, Jobs was a jerk and it doesn’t seem infeasible that given a longer life and a stretch of bad luck, he would have ended up a lonely person. He wasn’t good at treating other people well, maintaining relationships, or general soft skills if he didn’t want something from the person. Lots to be avoided there.

What other cool facts did I learn about Steve Jobs

  • I like learning about his adopted father, Paul Jobs, who was a craftsman, mechanic and huge inspiration to Steve
  • He really like Japan and Hawaii, two of my favorite places. He ended up taking some of his children on 1:1 trips to Japan at various points, which seems like a really nice parent/child experience