He’s an engineer’s engineer; a part-time teacher and full-time speaker; a well-known prankster; and cofounder of one of the world’s greatest companies. But who knew Steve Wozniak had a touch of the philosopher in him? In early August, I had an opportunity to sit down with "Woz" for an interview hosted by San Francisco Travel as part of the 2014 MPI World Education Congress. Distilled from that talk (and from his autobiography iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon) are the following nine nuggets of Wozdom.
1. Be curious. Wozniak grew up the son of an engineer in Silicon Valley and from an early age, he asked his father to explain things like, "How does a light bulb work?" and "What’s a transistor?" As he learned the answers, "it made me feel different from all the other kids . . . I started to feel as if I knew secrets no one else knew." Wozniak thinks it’s imperative that we encourage this kind of inquiry in today’s students. "We’ve got to stop discouraging creativity," he says. "Children come to school curious and wanting to explore; they want to see what’s in the drawer, and they’re told, 'Oh, you’re not allowed to open the drawer.'"
2. Dream big. Wozniak was shaped by coming of age in the Bay Area, where, he noted, "you’ve got a critical mass of people who want to change the world." He said he and Steve Jobs "were influenced so much by the counter-culture movement—thinking about people and how to treat them as human beings, and how computers might help people." Woz also dreamed of a world where the techies could be heroes: "I wanted us geeks to be important, instead of in the shadows," he says.
3. Stretch yourself. "Creativity doesn’t come from doing what you already know how to do," Wozniak says. "It’s when you get ideas about what you haven’t done . . . and you take building blocks and make something the way it’s never existed before." Wozniak continually tries to do things he’s never done before, and not just in engineering: His 2009 appearance on Dancing with the Stars was one such "stretch"—resulting in a pulled hamstring and an early exit from the competition. But Wozniak says he relished the experience because "when you’re not the right person to be in a place—and you still work hard to accomplish something—that’s even more fun."
4. Don’t build stuff just to make money. Unless you really care about what you’re making, other people won't care either, Wozniak says. "If you say, here’s what other people want and that's what I’m going to make, it’s never going to be as good as when it's something you want yourself—whether it’s the iPhone for Steve Jobs, the Apple II for me, or the Tesla for Elon Musk."
5. An idea on paper isn’t worth much. "I like to tell people to get your working model before you raise your money, like we did at Apple," Wozniak says. "And to do that, get linked up with engineers early in the process. Let them be included in the start of your company. Don’t just say I’ll bring in the engineers once I get funded, to develop the project. If you develop working models early, you’ll own a lot more of what you have—and you’ll have better ideas of what you can do and how far your thinking can go."
6. Be forgiving. Wozniak has written that early in his partnership with Steve Jobs, while they were working on a video game for Atari, Jobs misled him about how much Atari was paying for the work. "I found out he got paid a bit more for it than he said at the time, but we were kids, you know," he writes. "He wasn’t honest with me, and I was hurt. But I didn’t make a big deal about it or anything." (Not to say Woz isn’t sometimes critical of his former partner: During our interview he pointed out that Jobs refused his request to donate the first Apple computer to a woman who worked with elementary schools. "He made me buy it and I gave it to her.")
7. Take your problems to bed with you. Wozniak often went to sleep thinking about a computer problem and sometimes woke up in the middle of the night with a solution. So he started writing down ideas as soon as he woke up. "Sometimes they were good, sometimes not. But I think during that time when you’re falling asleep and waking up, your mind is a little freer to go off in directions that it’s never been before. And you find yourself asking, 'Can this be done? Would it work?'"
8. Never stop simplifying. "I always tried to simplify my designs down to the absolute minimum," Wozniak said. In terms of the early Apple computers, Wozniak was particularly focused on reducing the number of chips required—and apparently, this obsession stayed with him long after the product was finished. During our talk, he revealed that just a few days earlier—some 38 years after the fact—"I finally figured out I could have saved one chip on the Apple II." (When the audience laughed, Wozniak explained: "Growing up with engineers, you think this way.")
9. Don’t take things too seriously. Wozniak has always believed in having fun. In college, he used his tech skills to jam television signals in the dorms—surreptitiously manipulating the results as fellow students fiddled with antennas and whacked the side of the TV. Later, he started the Bay Area’s first dial-a-joke phone line, using a rented answering machine and jokes he read out of a book. "In engineering, you need a lot of stress relief," he says. He has even calculated a formula for happiness: H = S – F, or, Happiness equals Smiles minus Frowns. "You get smiles from entertainment, jokes, and pranks. How do you minimize the frowns? Don’t worry so much about your car getting scratched—don’t have an idea of perfection that you have to live up to."