The Master Creator: Steve Jobs

Having just finished reading the excellent biography of the late Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, here are the key take-outs on creativity, innovation and purpose that we can gleam from his life and success:

1. Be a generalist

Have an interest in a wide variety of topics. Don’t be afraid to learn new things, even if it just amounts to superficial knowledge. During Jobs’ childhood he took an interest in almost everything that came his way – from organic farming to electronics. This is about filling your bag of building blocks. The more hunches and half-formed notions you have lurking in your subconscious, the more likely you are to make new connections later on.

2. Design and purpose

Design can help illuminate the purpose of anything. When Jonny Ive designed the original iMac he thought about his mum and how he could somebody like her establish a relationship with the computer:

Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared of something then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of deference to you.

3. Cross-pollination

In an organisation, cross-pollination helps creativity. Jobs recounts that he used to hire people in specific disciplines by also having them talk to specialists in other fields. What was important was getting “A players that wanted to play with other A players.”

He would also regularly take his engineers and design teams to go look at other fields of manufacturing and design to try and expose them to as many different stimuli and inputs as possible.

At Pixar, Jobs also has the office space designed so that people from all different disciplines would continually bump into each other randomly.

4. Purpose is forever

Could this be Jobs himself speaking?

We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and it’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.

Answer. Not Steve Jobs. Although it sounds a lot like him. In fact, it was (at the time) stand-in CEO Tim Cook responding to rumours about Jobs’ health. This goes to show that purpose is more enduring than the individual. If purpose is the glue that binds an organisation together, than the organisation is bigger than the sum of its individuals. Because purpose is eternal. Humans aren’t. And most importantly, I personally don’t think purpose can be profit. Profit is a by-product of purpose.

Jobs himself said this about business culture without purpose:

I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.

5. Innovation is not always about creating but sometimes about synthesis

Steve Jobs was not a designer. Yet he is credited as such. He was not artistic. Or technical. Yet he is credited as the father of the Mac. In his analysis, Isaacson says:

He didn’t invent many things outright, but he was a master at putting together ideas, art and technology in ways that invented the future.

Sound pretty ingenius to me.

Isaacson continues:

Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was indeed, an example of what the mathetician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.

Immense ingenuity can come from anyone who takes a broad interest in life and everything in it, allows their intuition to make random connection between a wide range of stimuli and who then have the courage to go beyond idea to execution.

By being able to allow hunches, interests, intuition and inputs from everywhere to freely flow through his mind, coupled with a steely will, he was able to launch a series of products over 30 years that had completely transformed whole industries. From the Mac to the iPod, the iPhone to iTunes all the way to digital animation with cross-age appeal, Steve Jobs was the Da Vinci of our time.

This is what he said about his own driving force:

What drove me? I think the most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language of mathematics I use. I make little of my own food. None of my own clothes.

Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the way that most of us know how – because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.


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