[Steve Jobs is the most consequential figure in the history of design. So I’ve been taking it slow with Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography of the man, hoping for insights into how Jobs’s personality, timing, and influences managed to produce so much innovation—and what the rest of us might learn from his example. I wanted to share those thoughts with you, in a regular series. I hope you enjoy, and, if you’re reading the book as well, I hope you’ll add your own thoughts in the comments below.—Ed.]
Steve Jobs was an exceptionally unreasonable man. In the first 100 pages or so of Isaacson’s book, you hear constantly how he cajoled, swindled, and browbeat those around him into doing what he wanted. Mostly, it was the latter: If Jobs wasn’t crying about getting his way, he was usually making those around him cower in fear—and his tirades felt particularly acute because he had a way of spotting personal weaknesses, and calling them out to devastating effect.
It’s a testament to his vision and other virtues that so many around him continued working for him—and even loved him, despite all those failings. But reading the book, you often get the feeling that so much of what Jobs accomplished was, at least partly, because his management style was so awful. Here’s a telling quote from the book, on p. 122:
One day Jobs barged into the cubicle of one of the Atkinson’s engineers and uttered his usual "This is shit." As Atkinson recalled, "The guy said, 'No it’s not, it’s actually the best way,' and he explained to Steve the engineering trade-offs he’d made." Jobs backed down. Atkinson taught his team to put Jobs’s words through a translator. "We learned to interpret 'This is shit’ to actually be a question that means, 'Tell me why this is the best way to do it.' But the story had a coda, which Atkinson also found instructive. Eventually the engineer found an even better way to perform the function that Jobs had criticized. "He did it better because Steve had challenged him," said Atkinson, "which shows you can push back on him but should also listen, for he’s usually right."
This struck me for a couple of reasons. For one, I think that most companies don’t create many products of note because they lack this basic attitude of always attempting things they don’t know they can pull off. Most companies are managed in a way that keeps them producing what they already know how to produce. They play it safe.
That’s simply how most managers are taught: The ideal line manager in a typical company oversees a process that is, first and foremost, predictable. You rise in the ranks by being a superstar at accepting trade-offs, and having the trade-offs you’ve made accepted as the best practice. Put another way, most companies encourage their employees to simply do what they’ve always done—that makes investors happy, and it keeps your employees content in jobs they know they can do. But If there was one thing that Steve Jobs was known for, it was asking people to do ridiculous things that everyone around him said were impossible.
Job’s prickly behavior was partly driven by his perfectionism and his impatience with those who made compromises in order to get a product out on time and on budget. "He could not make trade-offs well," said Atkinson. "If someone didn’t care to make their product perfect, they were a bozo." At the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1981, for example, Adam Osborne released the first truly portable personal computer. It was not great—it had a five-inch screen and not much memory—but it worked well enough. As Osborne famously declared, "Adequacy is sufficient. All else is superfluous." Jobs found that approach to be morally appalling, and he spent days making fun of Osborne. "This guy just doesn’t get it," Jobs repeatedly railed as he wandered the Apple corridors. "He’s not making art, he’s making shit."
You begin to get the sense that Jobs was the conscience of the people around him—think about that engineer who later found an even better solution, simply because Jobs told him, at some point, "This is shit."
To be fair, Jobs could have accomplished this without being such a jerk. Moreover, not everyone has a reserve of untapped genius inside of them, as that engineer did. I could berate a class of 8th-grade science students all day, and they still wouldn’t produce the Theory of Relativity. But there’s a distinction to be made between the demands one places on average talent and the demands you place on exceptional talent. The latter needs to be pushed, because exceptionally talented people can unwittingly settle on what comes easy to them. (Just think of professional endurance athletes: It’s often said that there’s no talent gap between winners and losers; rather, it’s the mental trait of not accepting your limits that decides who wins as this superb episode of Radiolab points out.) Jobs knew that: He always thought that his own impossible demands had a way of weeding out everyone who didn’t want to exceed their own expectations.
Obviously, we can’t all be Steve Jobs. We can’t all have his perfect timing. And we can’t (and shouldn’t) all be dictators in our companies, as he was able to do as Apple’s exalted founder. But we can still recognize that it’s precisely those talents that a stable company encourages—smart trade-offs, an emphasis on the practical, and a sense of the possible driven by inertia—which keep most companies from making anything remarkable.
Entrepreneurs are sometimes able to escape that trap, because of the embrace risk more readily than most of us. The work of a good designer also pushes what seems possible, by solving problems that haven’t been articulated yet. Jobs, as it happens, had the soul of both an entrepreneur and a designer. That is what made his irrational expectations something more than wild fantasy. We should all have a few more irrational expectations in our work lives—and the way to do that is to encourage both the entrepreneur and the designer in each of us.
Read Design Crazy: Good Looks, Hot Tempers, and True Genius at Apple, our captivating oral history of the company that "taught the world taste." The ebook is available through Apple, Amazon and Byliner.