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What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Creativity

You could draw up a long list of all of the lessons for success that Steve Jobs has passed on to the world around him. His talent for public speaking turned product launch press conferences into international shows watched by hundreds of thousands of people online. It’s impossible now to imagine the launch of a major tech product that doesn’t involve a large auditorium, a casually-dressed CEO and a backdrop of giant screens. His attention to detail is legendary. The stories of him tossing an early iPod prototype into a fish tank and pointing out the bubbles to prove that there was still space under the hood that could be squeezed out may or may not be apocryphal (and is still slightly nuts) but it’s an inspiration to other managers wondering just how hard they can push their staff. But there’s one lesson that really stands out and it dominates Steve Jobs’ career, from his early partnership with Steve Wozniak to the launch of the iPad: his creativity.

It was unique in Silicon Valley. It powered Apple’s rise, then Pixar’s rise then Apple’s return as the most valuable company in the world. And it’s the lesson which has most influenced me — and which should most influence you too.

Know Your Talent, Not Stuff

To understand just how important that creativity is just think of the three most important tech companies to dominate the industry over the last decade or so; the differences between them stand out more than their similarities. True, Google and Microsoft are both primarily software firms but while the first delivers its services through the Web (and is therefore capable of reaching everyone), the second became a giant by ensuring that its programs were installed on every PC that left a factory owned by Dell, IBM, Toshiba or anyone else. They may be in competition in some areas, but Microsoft still dominates the PC market and Google is still a verb that means to search on the Web.

But both those firms were founded by geeks.

Sergei Brin and Larry Page were PhD students at Stanford University working on a research project about early search engine rankings. Bill Gates, who like Steve Ballmer and Mark Zuckerberg would go on to study at Harvard, was the archetypal computer nerd. His early teen projects included exploiting bugs in a mainframe’s operating system to wangle free computing time and writing a program to manage his school’s class schedule — which just happened to place him in classes with mostly female students.

Steve Jobs studied calligraphy then went to India. When he came back, he landed a job as a technician at Atari and was assigned the task of removing unnecessary chips from a circuit board for the game Breakout. He offered his friend Steve Wozniak half his bonus to do it for him. “Woz” managed to drop 50 chips from the board. Jobs dropped acid.

So while other rising tech firms were led by geeks who understood what was happening inside the case, Steve Jobs was alone in running a business about which he actually knew very little. In the same way that a car company might be led by someone who can’t even change the oil in his own car, so Apple was led by someone who didn’t know circuit boards but did know some great people who did.

The same was true when Jobs took over Pixar. Unlike Walt Disney, Jobs had no background in animation. In the same way that he depended on Steve Wozniak’s engineering skills in Apple’s early days (and on Jonathan Ive’s design talent in Apple’s more recent days) so Jobs was happy to depend on John Lasseter’s animation experience to power the successes behind Finding Nemo and Toy Story.

But what Jobs lacked in expertise, he made up for in his ability to think outside the box. That was literally true in the launch of the colorful iMac series in 1998 which, for the first time, made the outside of the box as important as the inside.

It was true in the launch of the iPod which certainly wasn’t the first digital music player but it was the first to make buying music from the big publishing firms easy and let users play that music in a unique, attractive — and cool — device.

And it was true, of course, in the launch of the iPad, a class of device which had been discussed for a long time, failed to take off but which has since revolutionized mobile computing.

It’s that ability to look at things differently that has inspire me the most, and it’s the lesson that applies to the largest number of people.

Thinking Beats Knowing

Few of us are the leading experts in anything. We might be passionate about photography or books or knitting or anything else, but there will always be someone who knows more than us — a professional photographer who produces outstanding landscapes, a writer who wins the Nobel Prize, a knitter whose designs are stocked in leading retail stores. Just as there has never been any shortage of people who could match Steve Jobs’ passion for technology and trump his knowledge of engineering so we all know that there are people who are bigger experts than us or have more refined skills.

But what we can each bring to our field is an ability to think differently. There may be someone who has a better grasp of lenses or literature or knitting loops than you — but if you can see something that they can’t see, you’ve got all you need to succeed.

That’s not something you can teach in the same way that Steve Jobs could have learned circuitry like Steve Wozniak or COBOL like Bill Gates. It’s something that you have to recognize, trust and learn how to nurture. You have to be able to act on your creativity and you have to be able to choose and hire people who can turn your thoughts into reality.

The most important lesson that I learned from Steve Jobs was that what I know is less important than how I think.

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