Takeaways from the wonderful “Steve Jobs” biography by Walter Isaacson

A few months ago having travelled to attend a conference meet in Pune, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a colleague and a respected leader at the breakfast table. We got talking about various things and the topic drifted to leadership traits when he reminisced about an exercise from long ago where everyone had to pick a leader and profile and his choice had been Steve Jobs – looking back he felt he had certainly picked the right guy – “for all his temperament and idiosyncrasies he’s an undisputed leader”. We talked about this a bit, and he recommended that I watch the movie as it brilliantly captured several shades of this iconic leader. The discussion made me realize how little I really knew about Steve – while I had been following the mercurial Jobs (as I am sure most of my generation would have), I had never really delved deep enough – and rekindled my desire to get to know more.

On my return I dutifully picked Walter Isaacson’s book (the movie is on the to do list) from the local bookstore – given Jobs’ misgivings about the Android OS, it seemed appropriate that I read Jobs’ biography not on my favourite kindle but on a neatly printed, solid tome (its over 700 pages long!). It stayed tucked away in my library – until the last week when I was a touch unwell and rummaging for something to read. And let me tell you, its a wonderful page turner – guaranteed to make you live through a gamut of emotions.

This post is really about a few takeaways for me from the book – a few I trust will come in of use to you as well:

1. No one is perfect at everything. That a surprising start, but the book zeroes in on the need for self awareness and the ability to bring in complementary skills for success. You need to be aware of what you are very good at and make sure you bring in others with “greatness” skills in areas you aren’t master off. There are quite a few references about Steve Jobs’ skills at programming not being top notch (in comparison to say a Steve Woznaik or a Bill Gates) while he was a master on user-centric design – his products though were sublime in both the areas

2. Masters bring in perspectives from seemingly unconnected fields, making big leads in innovation. Jobs for instance changed the desktop publishing industry building on skills acquired from his calligraphy classes, his designs were inspired by Zen minimalism and Italian architecture, several of his greatest innovations were adaptations of the Xerox lab’s work and so on…

3. Work should arise from an intent to “scratch your own itch” – if you build products that you’d love to use, chances are they would turnout awesome. There’s one chapter on the “making of the iphone” for instance where Isaacson details how Steve (and his team) were unhappy with the existing mobile phones (“they didn’t make their heart sing!”) and designed the iPhone to overcome those limitations and be a product they were proud to use.

4. The much discussed “reality distortion field” does wonders – Steve Jobs believed in his vision (or version!) of things so much that he was able to get his team to rally around and do stuff typically considered impossible (there’s a reference to the “6 impossible things before breakfast!” from alice in wonderland in the book too!). Key takeaway – do we really, intensely believe in our work? – if we do, you can be sure people around you will catch the spirit as well and do miracles!

5. Go in search of “purity” as opposed to “compromises”. There are at least three instances quoted where Steve pauses and undertakes major redesign because he feels the work isnt perfect (for instance he completely changed the layout of the apple stores after a discussion with his partner because they found a more congruent way to do things). Time and again, we see instances where the average joe would have compromised a little and gone ahead (on the principle that 90% users wouldnt notice it anyway), steve wouldn’t. He recounts n example from his childhood where his dad encourages Steve to paint the inside of a fence (no one would know but the painter would) as well – a practice which made Steve detail stuff inside the box just as well as he did the outside in his later years.

6. Making sure your messages are very intuitive and targeted at your user . His ads (and the amount of time he spent on getting them right), the macworld appearances – you name it, the message was communicated just brilliantly. For instance the iPod ads didnt talk about memory, they talked about 1000 songs in your pocket.

7. Be brutally honest with feedback – your team will appreciate you for it– while the book lists several occasions where the receiver of the feedback took the feedback badly, there are also several instances where his Colleagues believe workign with him was an immense experience and they wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything in the world. He also is candid about experiments he got wrong (and there are several listed) – he indicates its this ability to be honest with his teams that ensures the team stays top class all the time

8. Learn from experts and share extensively – through the book you see him on long walks bouncing off ideas with extraordinary people – Larry Elison, Mickey Drexler, Andy Grove and many more – even Bill Gates. These are intense discussions – and raise the level of thought across the ecosystem (for want of a better word!). He also talks about how much he gained from others and how he’d like to give back to his country and the Silicon Valley. Worth thinking how many such discussions we seek out with experts and if we dont, maybe should schedule some huh!..

9. And my absolute favourite – he always seems to have had a higher purpose in mind – of changing the world. And the way he went about doing it was special too – check out this maxim of his “the journey is the reward”. And really the book celebrates the journey product after product.

Through the journeys are peppered many goosebumps moments (hope this isn’t a spoiler so will stop with a couple!):
– of how he considers the itunes journey more or less done only when he gets his favourite band “Beatles” onto his store – and his child-like enthusiasm on working on every aspect of getting them onto the store to maximum impact:

– the showman himself lost for words when he meets his idol “Bob Dylan” in person

– Of spending his personal finances on the creative work at pixar (even when he was running a tight ship elsewhere) because he couldn’t say no to artistry…

For those of you who are looking to know more about Steve the person – there’s plenty of stuff in too right from his “vegan” diets, to his zen and india travels in search of enlightenment, his college experience, his turbulent early years. his relationships, $1 salary…the whole nine yards.

So thats it then for this post – there are few biographies that are as well written as this one. Its extremely well researched but written in a very affable way with all typical distractions from scholarly type work (footnotes, jargon etc) eliminated for the most part – the author also stays hidden (no preaching and commentary at all) and gets you into the drama like in a well-written novel.

5 stars from me for this wonderful work and am sure I will be reaching out for his other biographies as well soon…..

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