Steve Job’s biography surprises and enlightens

“If you are not busy being born you are busy dying” — Bob Dylan

Steve Jobs is a tech inspiration. He had failings as a family man, being “too busy to flush toilets” let alone be a loving father to four children, but as a business leader he created revolutionary products with imaginative leaps that were “instinctive, inspirational and at times magical”. They were also profitable: in 2010, Apple took 35% perfect of the operating profit of the PC industry from 7% of the revenue.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs reveals his passion, fire and obsession over 650 pages of personal anecdotes.

Simplicity in design

Steve “saw differently” and understood “the notion of tools for human use”, creating all products under Da Vinci’s guideline that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The gardens around Kyoto, physical manifestations of Zen Buddhism, were “the most sublime thing [he had] ever seen”, and Job’s only digital book was the Autobiography of a Yogi, a guide to meditation and spirituality that he read yearly.

Experiences on LSD were among his most important, and perhaps contributed to his intuitive understanding that all product components must combine to form a cohesive whole: Apple’s most successful products were seemless combinations of hardware, software and distribution. “Producing technology requires intuition and creativity” and “producing something artistic takes real discipline”.

Steve preferred to go without than use a badly-designed product as “material possessions cluttered life instead of enriching it”. His preferred products included Henckels knives, Braun appliances (Dieter Rams “weniger aber besser”) and Bang & Olufsen audio equipment.

Masterful communication

When criticized about the late release of NeXT Step, Job’s snapped “It’s not late. It’s five years ahead of its time.” His communication always had focus and exact timing. Another gem showed his clarity of thought: “God gave us ten styluses” was an instant logical rebuttal of Microsoft´s trust in the stylus. He noticed and reprimanded common mistakes in business communication like using “slide presentations instead of thinking”.

With personnel, he was both caring and harsh. His partner Woz had the skill of 50 average engineers and Steve aimed to build entire teams of these A-players (following Oppenheimer’s example). This helped the superstars, who only wanted to work with equally talented peers, but also brought the fear of being discarded.

Focussing on excellence

The motivation behind Apple was to “build an enduring company where people were motivated to create great products”. Profit was important to continue making these products and quality was enforced with a culture of brutal but empowering honesty.

Apple considers details other companies ignore, even the “tactile experience” of unwrapping the box sets “the tone for how you perceive the product inside”. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do” when creating companies and products, time saved focussing on core features users wanted could be used to refine the entire product. Companies should “focus on five products” as more will not be beneficial.

Execution is as important as the ideas that drive innovation and successful execution requires an understanding of the principles behind a project. A project is not done until it ships and the journey to shipping is the reward.

Personal investment

The iPhone was created by a team who made themselves the perfect phone and the development of the iPod and iTunes was facilitated by Steve’s love of music. His personal collection contained the complete discography of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, with a few unusual choices such as the Benedictine “Spiritus Domini” and performances from Yo-Yo Ma, who played cello at his funeral.

After Henry Ford created the first mass-produced automobile, he remarked “if I had asked people what they wanted they would have told me a faster horse”. Steve Jobs drove change through his recognition of excellence.


See also