For anyone seeking inspiration, motivation, or perspective, you just can’t do better than Steve Jobs. Though he died relatively young and built both his fame and his fortune from making consumer electronics, Jobs casts a very long shadow. That’s in part because of the iconic products he made and the way he lived his life always on his own terms. But it’s also because of the brilliant and profound things he said about life, work, and what’s truly important. Much of what he said is an invitation to rethink everything about your life, your work, and the products or services your company sells.
Jobs was a renowned speaker who gave legendary presentations, but some of his most deeply insightful words were said during the many interviews he granted throughout his newsworthy life.
Here’s a collection of some of his most profound comments:
1. “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
Anyone who’s ever built a company from scratch knows just how true this is. Jobs went on to talk about how hard it is to get a company going, how much of your life it takes over, and for those people who give up, he added, “I don’t blame them.”
2. “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.”
Market research is a great way to refine an idea, figure out what will work in the marketplace, and find problems your products can solve. But Jobs was absolutely right that it’s little help if you’re creating something truly innovative. Everyone wanted an iPhone when they first appeared, but no one could have described what they wanted before seeing one.
3. “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”
Maybe you wouldn’t pick Socrates. Maybe it would be da Vinci, or Babe Ruth—or Jobs himself. The point is about a value system that puts people, especially the most creative, insightful people, ahead of everything else. That’s a philosophy every leader should consider.
4. “I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year...It’s very character-building.”
Jobs was never shy about discussing his failures and disappointments in public. And of course he had some spectacular public failures, including being ousted as leader of the company he founded—by the CEO he himself had recruited.
The most successful entrepreneurs in history have also had some of the most spectacular failures. Keep that in mind next time one of your projects or deals crashes and burns.
5. “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”
Jobs was famously obsessed with simplicity and focus, not only in Apple products themselves, but also in the company’s product line. In a painful but necessary move shortly after returning from his exile as Apple CEO, he cut 70% of the product line (and 3,000 jobs) in order to focus the company on a small number of products and making them insanely great. And he was right. Never underestimate the power of saying no to everything that isn’t essential.
6. “You always have to keep pushing to innovate.”
Whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur, trying to repeat your past successes is the road to nowhere, Jobs knew. He cited Bob Dylan and the Beatles as examples of artists who moved on from their first styles and kept experimenting and innovating—even when it alienated their existing fans. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do—keep moving,” he added. “Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you are not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
7. “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Jobs saw more quickly than most people do the basic truth that what we think of as innovation is often a matter of combining existing elements in ways no one else has thought of yet. The invention of cell phones simply combined the existing technologies of telephony and radio waves. Smartphones combined those technologies with the internet.
“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,” Jobs continued. “It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” There’s a lesson here for us all to always be alert to the way products and processes we already have can be combined in unexpected ways to create new products, processes, or technologies.
8. “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it.”
This is classic Jobs arrogance, but it’s also true. So many of the things we believe are hard-and-fast rules are (or should be) open for discussion, questioning, or re-imagining in exactly the way Jobs questioned and re-imagined industries from computing to animation to music to mobile phones. So, while I’d discourage you from parking in handicapped spaces if you aren’t disabled (as Jobs infamously made a habit of doing), it is smart to question the rules and dictums you encounter if they don’t make sense to you. Then ask yourself what Jobs would have done about them.
9. “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know?”
This is the kind of Jobs quote that puts everything into perspective, at least for me. More than anyone I’ve ever known of, he kept the big picture—and his own mortality—constantly in mind. He constantly asked himself if he would spend the last day of his life doing what he was doing, a useful exercise we should all try from time to time.
He went on to say, “We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the [executive team] could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it. And we think it is.” If you can’t say the same for whatever you’re doing, it may be time to consider a change.
10. “My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better.”
Whether you agree with it or not, Jobs was very clear about his management philosophy: Hire the absolute best people and then push them to do better work than they themselves think is possible. He was infamously tough on Apple employees in ways that might not work in today’s tighter job market. But he firmly believed that with a team of A players, the best favor you could do them was to be honest when something wasn’t working. And it’s tough to argue with his results.
11. “I told our company that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay off people, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place...And we were going to keep funding.”
Faced with the economic downturn in 2008, Jobs reminded an interviewer that Apple had been through a similar crisis with the dot-com crash of 2000, when a strategy of staying the course had seen them through. It was a great example of a leader keeping his head in the midst of widespread uncertainty.
“In fact, we were going to up our R&D budget so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.” Needless to say, it worked the second time as well.
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