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8 of Steve Jobs's best quotes and why they are special to me

Posted by Arjun Moorthy

Aug 25, 2011 5:06:00 AM

With Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO from Apple, the Wall Street Journal put together some of his very best quotes.  The whole collection is beautiful - inspiring, insightful, legendary.  But there are 8 that are particularly special to me and that I hope will move you, the reader, as well.

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1. On the importance of hard work:

"Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that."

I've blogged about Malcolm Gladwell's parable that one needs to spend 10000 hours to become an expert in any subject.  This is yet another take on that but mentions the risk of not seeing it through - you never really know something till you're an expert at it.  This is also why the cliche, "Jack of All Trades, Master of None", bothers me.  This is the anti-thesis of really knowing something well enough to appreciate it. 

Of late, I've started taking classical music vocal lessons.  Though I am only 20 hours into my 10,000, and may need 20 years to reach any sort of expertise, my teacher is obsessed with teaching me the fundamentals.  And I'm thrilled for that dedication as it's making me appreciate the artform so much more.  And only if you truly love it will you stay the 10,000 hours to fully grok it.

2. On Creativity

"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people."

"Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have."

I've long believed that my going to school in 3 different school systems - Nigerian, Indian and Canadian - are a big reason I have some prespective unlike most of my peers.  I know my parents didn't expect this benefit when they embarked on an adventure to go to Nigeria in 1979 but I firmly believe that exposure to such diverse cultures was a huge influence in shaping my thought process.  I hope I can endow my children with as rich and varied experiences.

I'll cheat and sneak in another quote here that makes the point even more memorable.  Jobs on Bill Gates: "I wish him the best, I really do. I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger."  I'm not advocating drug use but I know you'll remember this point forever now.

3. On Management

"[Apple] is not a one-man show. What’s reinvigorating this company is two things: One, there’s a lot of really talented people in this company who listened to the world tell them they were losers for a couple of years, and some of them were on the verge of starting to believe it themselves. But they’re not losers. What they didn’t have was a good set of coaches, a good plan. A good senior management team. But they have that now.

Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it."

There are times I've questioned the importance of management in technology firms, but Steve's quote is reassuring to know that management was a missing ingredient from Apple achieving greatness in the late 80s. 

It's become fashionable to say that a founder of a software startup must write code and implicitly say that management, and perhaps explicit leadership, is not as important.  Rubbish.  Leadership is always most important, no matter what stage a company is in, and leaders can be non-coders so long as they are passionate and willing to do whatever it takes to build something great. 

A non-coding leader can still be involved deeply involved with driving the company:

  • Product via user testing: Jobs tests every product, down to the details.
  • Marketing: Jobs was singular in his vision to have a retail presence all Apple when no other tech company would dare do so given its low margin and helped define exactly the type of store he felt would resonate with customers.
  • Strategy: Jobs knew iTunes would only succeed with all 5 major music labels (90% of all music in western world) and with all songs for 1 price: $0.99.  While at RealNetworks, our leader, Rob Glaser, compromised on both those points to appease the music labels and the result was a dismal failure.  (Btw, Rob can code)
  • Sales: Jobs is the consumate saleman and the rapid uptake of his inventions are in no small part due to his showmanship and sales abilities.

4. On Startups

"The problem with the Internet startup craze isn’t that too many people are starting companies; it’s that too many people aren’t sticking with it. That’s somewhat understandable, because there are many moments that are filled with despair and agony, when you have to fire people and cancel things and deal with very difficult situations. That’s when you find out who you are and what your values are."

“So when these people sell out, even though they get fabulously rich, they’re gypping themselves out of one of the potentially most rewarding experiences of their unfolding lives. Without it, they may never know their values or how to keep their newfound wealth in perspective."

Angle investor Ron Conway recently said "An entire generation of entrepreneurs are building dipshit companies and hoping that they sell to Google for $25 million."  The implicit statement is that these entrepreneurs were only in it primarily for wealth.  Not to create something profound.  And hence they miss out on the real achievement.

This is also evident in the rash of companies filing to go public (and here) when they've achieved nothing that can last more than a few years.  Jobs says what separates the everyday entrepreneur from the great entrepreneur better than I've seen any one else.

5. On Money

"You know, my main reaction to this money thing is that it’s humorous, all the attention to it, because it’s hardly the most insightful or valuable thing that’s happened to me.  Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me."

It's probably already clear that money isn't the primary motivating factor for me.  What I wonder is how the world of investment banking, and especially hedge funds, lives with itself.  What a waste to have some of our most talented minds graduating from top schools be absorbed into this world.

Sure, they'll say "but we invest in technology companies" or "we help people save for their retirements."  Rubbish.  The truth is they are driven by money, not by powering the economy or helping people live well in retirement.  Our capitalistic society has made it ok to say that you're driven by money and wealth.  "Greed is Good" isn't just a line from a movie, it's a way of life. 

But Greed means you'll compromise whatever you're working on when the road gets tough and go for the easy money.  So, Greed is not only bad it's the worst kind of motivator.

6. On technology

"The problem is I’m older now, I’m 40 years old, and [technology] doesn’t change the world. It really doesn’t."

“I’m sorry, it’s true. Having children really changes your view on these things. We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time.”

"It’s a disservice to constantly put things in this radical new light — that it’s going to change everything. Things don’t have to change the world to be important."

For a guy who's invented some of the most defining devices of our young 21st century, that's a heck of a statement. 

For me, it says, you don't have to achieve Steve Jobs's like fame or success to be important.  You can achieve greatness in any sphere, without fame, just do what you love and do it till you achieve something significant.  This puts into prespective our search for the "iPhone" or "iTunes" of our careers. 

7. On the flaws of group design/think

"When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

I’m an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic view of individuals. As individuals, people are inherently good. I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.

[...] For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them."

Just about every business leader espouses "listen to your customer" or "the customer is always right."  Steve stands in opposition to this being the guiding mantra and I applaud him for this refreshing, if clearly arrogant, stance.  Particularly if you're passionate about a vision, "wisdom of the crowds" will seldom let you build truly innovative things.

That said, it's very difficult to work with an autocrat like Steve.  Five years ago, graduating from Stanford, I interviewed with Apple in what was the most frustrating interview ever.  For every question I had on "why didn't you guys build this?" or "what about entering this market?" the interviewer's response was "Steve doesn't think so" or "Steve hasn't felt the need yet."  Towards the end, I asked point black "does everyone only do things Steve says?" and she didn't respond.  We both knew the answer and the interview was over.

Of course, Steve has long been known to be a dictator CEO and if you don't bide by his vision you can't work with him.  Not ideal for many, including me.  But, you have to tip your hat to the man for building an uncompromised vision that was his.

Reading more carefully, Steve is subtly taking a dig at democracy, if not intentionally.  The popular refrain - democracy isn't a great system but it's better than everything else we've got - is a lousy excuse.

8.  On building truly innovative products.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on something, but working on Macintosh was the neatest experience of my life. Almost everyone who worked on it will say that. None of us wanted to release it at the end. It was as though we knew that once it was out of our hands, it wouldn’t be ours anymore. When we finally presented it at the shareholders’ meeting, everyone in the auditorium gave it a five-minute ovation. What was incredible to me was that I could see the Mac team in the first few rows. It was as though none of us could believe we’d actually finished it. Everyone started crying.

Of late there is a popular sentiment to release products quickly and often - fail fast, fail often.  Try something out, if it fails, no problem, "you've learned something."  Because the perceived cost of building software is smaller now than in the past, it's cheap to try out new things.  But if the product fails is it because it was half finished when released or because it's a lousy concept?  Do you always learn in this method?

I believe that this kind of incremental innovation will seldom get you breakthrough products.  Sometimes you have to hunker down, think deeply and research broadly, build and rebuild and only release when it's excellent.  This isn't always prudent, particularly when you have a great platform/product to start with, but the release fast and fail fast mentality shouldn't be the prevailing methodology.

9. Ok, there's actually 9 quotes, but I'm told lists of 8 has better SEO benefits :)

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Wah!  Kya baat hai.

Topics: career advice, career path

Career Advice I Wish I Knew Earlier 

Hello.  I started this blog to distribute some of the best career advice I have been given over the many jobs I've had.  I've been fortunate to work for and with some great bosses like Francis DeSouzaNancy Kamei and Rick Roberge, and some unique companies, like The Boston Consulting Group, that invest heavily in making each employee a success even after leaving the firm.

The advice and training I received here stands in sharp contrast to my experiences with some not-so-great bosses and companies I've also worked for.  I'm continualy amazed at how valuable good advice has been in my career so I hope to pass on the good advice, and insights from mistakes I've made, via this blog. 

Thanks in advance for your comments, particularly when you can improve upon the ideas posted.

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