Steve Jobs’ Legacy for Builders
A book that lit a fire in my soul
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Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact—and that is: everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. - Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was objectively cruel. Time and time again he demonstrated a capacity for brutal coldness that is hard to read about. He abandoned his daughter, casually discarded people he called friends, and had a staggering amount of self-obsession.
Steve Jobs was objectively brilliant. He revolutionized personal computing three distinct times (the Apple 2, the Macintosh, and the iPhone). His lectures on product and design demonstrate a unique empathy toward people’s needs. He helped build a technology giant in Apple and a cultural giant in Pixar.
Talent and terror. Cruelty and compassion. Genius and narcissism. To accept Jobs (and by extension every person who changed the world) you have to accept this duality.
Still, when Make Something Wonderful was published on Tuesday, April 11th, I found myself accidentally slipping into fandom. The ebook is a compilation of emails, interviews, and lectures that Jobs gave. One part oral history, one part product design ethos lecture, the book was designed by Jony Ive’s creative agency LoveFrom and has a foreword from his widow Laurene Powell Jobs. It is exquisitely done and I devoured it all in one sitting. Perhaps unsurprisingly given who created it, the book does not delve at all into the complications of Job’s past. Instead, it revels only in the godlike powers of Apple’s cofounder.
Despite my struggle with how Jobs treated others, the book lit a fire in my soul. It ignited that part of me that desires to create. I finished it and my bones itched. My fingers tapped. There was a yearning in my hands to write and write and write and write until the world was reshaped by the force of my will.
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In that, this book, and Jobs himself, was special. He inspired that in all of us.
His ethos of product is sorely missing in technology today. The beauty of craft and the importance of aesthetics—all the hallmarks of the Apple of old—are absent. In our hyper-optimized-LTV/CAC ratio-have-you-read-the-latest-tweet-thread-bro world, the simplicity of Jobs’ philosophy is intensely appealing.
It is worth engaging with Make Something Wonderful as a book of aspirations versus a canonical depiction of a complicated reality.
With that in mind, there were four meta-points that stood out to me.
Tech and content have dramatically different DNA, and can, sometimes, produce incredible results when paired
I can think of no other executive who simultaneously advanced the creative and technological arts as much as he did. When he was brought back to Apple, it was supposed to only be on an interim basis, so he retained his job as CEO at Pixar. Can you imagine doing that? Not only was he running the best animation studio of the last 50 years he was also running the company that invented personal computing. Plus, Apple was months away from bankruptcy! What an incredible challenge.
Jobs upon his return to Apple
Jobs came out of the gate hot during his return to Apple. He slashed the product line from 17 SKUs to 4. He did massive layoffs. Then he held a meeting to debut his masterstroke: a new ad campaign entitled Think Different.
“We were up till three o’clock last night finishing this advertising, and I want to show it to you in a minute—see what you think of it. I’ve been back about eight to ten weeks, and we’ve been working really hard. What we’re trying to do is not something really highfalutin. We’re trying to get back to the basics.”
They launched with this video. It is an ad that I still watch a couple times a year:
This ad represents the merge of the technological and creative capabilities Jobs had. How was he able to do this? He had a ton of respect for both of these crafts.
“I’ve watched people at Pixar making these films, and they work as hard as I’ve seen anybody in a technology company ever work. The creative process is as disciplined as any engineering process I’ve ever seen in my life. And they’re as passionate about it as any technical person I’ve ever seen.
On the other hand, the content companies have no appreciation of the creative process in the technical companies. They think that technology is something that you write a check for and buy. That’s it. And they do not understand that there’s a wide, dynamic range of capability and elegance. They don’t understand the creativity in the process. So these are like ships passing in the night.”
Job in 1995, when Pixar IPOd.
Great content gives you an unfair right to sell technology. The same is true in reverse. Apple today has incredible technology paired with good content. Because making just one great thing is hard enough, almost no company is able to do both well. However, in those very rare, very special circumstances where it happens it is a HUGE competitive advantage. For example, Stripe had incredible early success because it created great marketing content and developer documentation.
Shoot, even the very publication this column is housed in does this. Lex, our homegrown AI word processor, had 25K users in the first 24 hours of launching. My colleague Dan soft launched a course on how to build a chatbot 7 days ago and already has dozens of students. (I have done nothing but look handsome. However, I appreciate my coworkers making me look smart via the properties of osmosis.) All this success and growth is only possible because we have put years of effort into writing quality essays. It’s earned us the trust of all of you. If we make it and say it's good, it's good.
Love what you do and throw yourself full-hearted into it
Jobs did LSD in high school, dropped out of college after six months, and was essentially homeless for a year and a half. Then he went to India and meditated, and only then did he start his path as an entrepreneur. In summary, over and over again he chose the “wrong” thing. He just did what he got excited about and it worked out for him.
“Don’t be a career. The enemy of most dreams and intuitions, and one of the most dangerous and stifling concepts ever invented by humans, is the “Career.” A career is a concept for how one is supposed to progress through stages during the training for and practicing of your working life.
There are some big problems here. First and foremost is the notion that your work is different and separate from the rest of your life. If you are passionate about your life and your work, this can’t be so. They will become more or less one. This is a much better way to live one’s life.
[The] risk factor quotient goes down as you encounter the real world. Many [people] find what they believe to be safe harbors (lawyers and accountants), only to wake up ten or fifteen years later and discover the price they paid.
"Make your avocation your vocation. Make what you love your work.”
To be clear, I think that Jobs advocating for pursuing your passions is sometimes really bad advice. His perspective is informed from a position of privilege and survivorship bias. If your passion is Icelandic puppetry or something equally niche, you will almost certainly end up painfully poor if you try to make it your career.
Alternatively, I have many, many friends that chose the path of stability and careers. They went into consulting. They got their MBA from Harvard. They have 2 kids cutely dressed in J-Crew outfits. Their lives weren’t forged as much as they shook a Norman Rockwell painting until their personality fell out.
For many years, I felt envious of those people’s ability to just do the thing that you are supposed to do. Instead, I consistently choose the harder road: startups and writing and technology and craziness. The funny thing is that many of those same people now text me asking how they can start newsletters. Or I’ll see them start some asinine podcast that has no soul. Or they will have a startup with no originality to it at all.
Jobs' mantra of pursuing passion is really a call to bet on yourself. “So to be a creative person, you need to “feed” or “invest” in yourself by exploring uncharted paths that are outside the realm of your past experience. Seek out new dimensions of yourself—especially those that carry a romantic scent.”
Investing in experiences that will make you a better person is almost always a good bet. Make smart bets! But bet all the same. Especially if your passion is technology.
The future belongs to the humanities
For many years, I have felt embarrassed by my love of fiction. So many of my peers would exclusively read the latest and greatest blog post on some new strategy theorem. However, I felt that diving deep into the world of fantasy, sci-fi, and literature was a long-term investment that would *somehow* benefit me. Here’s Jobs on the value The Bard had for him while at school:
“I was forced to go to humanities lectures—it seemed like every day. I studied Shakespeare with Professor Svitavsky. And at the time, I thought these were meaningless and even somewhat cruel endeavors to be put through. I can assure you that as the patina of time takes its toll, I thank God that I had these experiences here. It has helped me in everything I’ve ever done, although I wouldn’t have ever guessed it at the time.”
Even before I went full-time on writing, I found that my ability to weave a strong narrative and set an intellectual hook was immensely useful in my day job. If my idea was worse (when you have colleagues as smart as I have had, this occurred often) I could usually get more than my fair share of resources because I could more cleverly communicate why I deserved them. It felt like a cheat code to be able to get budget allocation by making a funny PowerPoint slide, but stupidly, it works. And if you indulge me in this truly gigantic leap of logic, I think I was only able to do that funny slide because of my deep and abiding love for reading books about wizards. Fiction and art shaped me in subtle ways that helped me be better at everything else.
There is another, less meme-y way to grok why Job’s advocacy for humanities is important. If you work with enough startups, you start to recognize that a company's operations are a reflection of the founder’s personality. Here is Jobs talking about what he considers Apple’s biggest contribution to computing.
“Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience.”
Jobs' passion for the humanities, for calligraphy, and for human empowerment were baked into every aspect of the companies he helped found. In one amusing anecdote, he talked about how at the Pixar headquarters all the “steel was hand-joined on this site and bolted together, not welded.” It is rare for billionaires to care about door hinges, but that attention to detail and craft was core to Jobs’ personhood. It permeated the very spaces he built and the organizations he started.
This matters, even more, today than it did in the early 2000s. If AI really does decrease the production costs of most goods—I recognize this is a big if—then suddenly we are looking at markets that compete on taste. The lower the marginal cost of production, the higher the value of taste. Said another way, if code is no longer hard to understand, we revert to trying to understand the toughest thing of all: humans. Here, the humanities help.
Make your purpose building and the profits will follow
Both of Jobs’ marquee products, the Apple 2 and the iPhone, weren’t driven by market research. They were forged by frustration.
“The reason we [Woz and I] built a computer was that we wanted one, and we couldn’t afford to buy one. They were thousands of dollars at that time. We were just two teenagers. We started trying to build them and scrounging parts around Silicon Valley where we could. After a few attempts, we managed to put together something that was the Apple I.”
Jobs demoing the Apple 2 in 1977
And here he is speaking about the iPhone,
“And it wasn’t driven by a bunch of market research or financial spreadsheets about how big certain markets were. It wasn’t driven by that at all. It was driven by the fact that we all hated our phones. We talked to all of our friends and all the people we knew, and they all hated their phones.”
Steve in 2007
To be honest, this smells a little bit like revisionist history. Jobs had employees requesting to build a phone for years before he finally relented. His delayed decision was fully rooted in business strategy: he didn’t want to cede power to the major carriers. The decision to build finally happened after a disastrous partnership with Motorola convinced him that they had to do it themselves.
Still, there is a kernel of truth here that appeals to me. I first started writing because I couldn’t find something to read that did what I wanted. I wanted a newsletter that was technology focused, optimistic, funny, had some math, and also had a love for the humanities. It didn’t exist, so I made it. I was then fortunate to find the Every team who wanted to make something similar. Of course, we think about the possibility of making lots of money, but the origin of doing a media company was to make something we wanted.
Solving problems you care about is an incredible way to live your life. Building businesses that way makes sense too. Here is Job’s discussing why Apple had issues while he was away,
“And so, what happened at Apple was that Apple’s goals used to be to make the best personal computers in the world. And then the second goal was to make a profit so we could keep on doing number one. Right?
What happened was that, for a time, those got reversed: “We want to make a bunch of money, and so, OK, to do that, we’re going to have to make some good personal computers.” But it didn’t work. It never works. And so things start to fall apart.”
Companies are a way to coordinate a group of people’s actions toward solving a specific problem. If you are going to work on something, might as well do it for something you care about. When you just run a business to crunch numbers the whole thing dies.
You should read this book. It is more scripture than history and that is totally OK. In its teachings, I was reminded why I care so much about the technology industry. Building is a privilege. Hacking is a gift. After I finished reading, I sat down for a few hours and meditated on my goals. Am I living my life in the way I want to? Am I building myself into the person who can accomplish what I think is important? Am I building the products that change the world in the way I think best?
The takeaways from Jobs' life and work are simple: love what you do, bet on yourself, and make something wonderful.
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