A life is defined by two things: the context in which you live and the decisions you make. When reading the biography of a heroic figure, I find it interesting to tease apart the parts of a life that were caused by history, geography and biology and those that were acts of volition.
Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of Apple, was born in the right place (near Silicon Valley) at the right time (at the beginning of both the computer and counter-culture revolutions) to the right parents (his biological father was an academic, his adoptive father was a craftsman – a potent combination in technology). The circumstances were perfect for Steve Jobs to become Steve Jobs. However, circumstances are not enough. There were plenty of other companies that had similar early success — Commodore, Osborne, Sinclair, Amstrad — but which don’t exist anymore. The difference is that when faced by a fork in the road Steve Jobs’s Apple made great decisions.
The etymological root of the word ‘decision’ comes from the Latin for ‘cutting off’ and, indeed, to make a decision is to cut off possibilities. Human life is finite and will dissipate to nothing unless you focus your time and energy. To focus, identify what is important and clear away all that is unnecessary or distracting.
As Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address: ‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’
That inner voice, that lurch of conscience you feel when you go against your value system, is your integrity. Do things that align with your values and your integrity increases, go against it and it is diminished. For some people, their integrity dies entirely leaving them in a perpetual state of bad faith. They are humourless automatons, like holocaust bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, incapable of seeing the bigger picture beyond their efficiency.
The classic battle of integrity is between art and money; and the worst decision Steve Jobs ever made was to employ John Sculley, a former Pepsi ad man, as CEO of Apple. Suddenly the focus went from product innovation to milking as much money as possible from the old ideas. As soon as you base your decisions on making money, you lose sight of what is important.
Andy Hertzfeld, who helped design the original Macintosh, put it this way: ‘The goal was never to beat the competition, or to make a lot of money. It was to do the greatest thing possible, or even a little greater.’
Real integrity is long-term dedication to an ideal. It is the difference between putting watercress on your window sill or planting an oak tree in a forest. Sure, you’ll get something to sprinkle on your salad in a couple of days, but it’s soon gone and you’ll never be able to climb the cress.
Integrity is rare and incredibly precious, especially in a world full of cynics who think the only way to get money is to cheat or patronize people with the lowest common denominator. These people are bozos and should be avoided.
A bozo, in Steve Jobs’s usage, is someone who is cynical, incurious, self-important, and incapable of saying no to the non-essential. The bozo doesn’t care about the details, they copy what others are doing and do the bare minimum. They are the person in the office who writes verbose emails that say nothing; they get defensive when criticised; they have no vision, only complaints.
Most of us put up with bozos, but Jobs would fire them. He didn’t do this just because he was a bit mean, but rather because he knew that bozos ruin everything by clouding decision-making and thus causing long-term problems.
As Walter Isaacson explains in his biography of Jobs::
“[Jobs saw] the world in binary terms. A person was either a hero or a bozo, a product was either amazing or shit. His goal was to be vigilant against ‘the bozo explosion’ that leads to a company being larded with second-rate talent:
‘For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so. The best airplane flight, the best meal, they may be 30% better than your average one. What I saw with Woz was somebody who was fifty times better than the average engineer.’”
The opposite of the bozo is the craftsman, someone who thinks about their work as something worthwhile in itself. Being a craftsman means doing fewer things but doing them better, paying attention to details, realising that big decisions are made of a thousand small decisions. It means favouring the simple over the complex.
Take clothes. Steve Jobs was notorious for wearing the same set of clothes everyday: an Issey Miyakke black turtle neck, Levi 501s, and New Balance 911 trainers. Early on, Steve Jobs decided what was important in terms of comfort and appearance and made a decision not to think about it again. He refined his look from the millions of clothes in the world to one outfit, allowing him to channel his energy into more important things. The same is true of Apple’s product design. As Jony Ive says: ‘Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. [...] You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.’
Finally, to make great decisions you have to lose your ego. So often people worry so much about their reputations that they never do anything at all. The past is past, you can only effect change in the present moment.
Here is Steve Jobs again at the 2005 Stanford Commencement:
‘Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.’