Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Good Work: What Made Steve Jobs So Special

     What with Labor Day just behind us, and unemployment at 9%, it seems appropriate to write about work, and especially good work.  In a Times op-ed on Sunday, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer wrote about what makes work good, and also about how good work makes for happier and more productive workers [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/do-happier-people-work-harder.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss].  They show that our drive for increased efficiency, and tighter managerial control, is not only misguided, but counterproductive.

      This brings me to Steve Jobs.  In the aftermath of Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO of Apple, much has been written about what makes Jobs unique and what has made Apple the most valuable company on earth.  Jobs is a creative genius, coming up with products that no one could have imagined.  Jobs is an intuitive genius, knowing what people want before they do. Jobs is a design genius, coming up with products that look and feel as great as they operate. Jobs is a marketing genius, able to get people to want things that they don’t need.  Jobs is a perfectionist who demands only the best and does not suffer fools.

            I don’t doubt that each of these characterizations is true, but I think they miss what is most essential about Jobs, and what separates people who are outstanding from those who are merely competent throughout society.  To put it succinctly, for Steve Jobs, it’s not about the money.  His aim, in creating the first Apple computers with Steve Wozniak, was to produce devices that were powerful, reliable, and easy to use—devices that would move computing from the office to the living room.  Get the device right, and the money will take care of itself.  The same seems to me to be true of the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.  Get the device right, and the money will take care of itself.  Indeed, the same was true of Pixar.  When Jobs owned that animation studio, the aim was to make great movies, no matter what the cost.  And make great movies they did, and have continued to do, making piles of money along the way.

            Early in Apple’s history, its computers were regarded disdainfully as toys.  As someone who has used Apple computers from the beginning, let me assure you that they were anything but toys.  They may have looked like toys, and they may have been easy and fun to use like toys, but they were very powerful indeed, and amazingly reliable.  The only limit on what they could do was the availability of software.  And this, for years, was a significant limit, because the folks wearing stodgy gray suits in businesses thought they needed to have stodgy computers to match.

            I don’t mean to suggest that Apple in general, and Jobs in particular, were completely indifferent to bottom lines.  Apple has shareholders, and shareholders have to be satisfied.  It’s just that they never seemed to let the business model get in the way of the product model.  They understood that the aim—the telos—of the organization was to make amazing things, and that financial success would come as a by-product of achieving that aim.

            I don’t think that Jobs and Apple were at all unique in this regard.  I believe that Bill Gates and Paul Allen had the same aspirations when they began Microsoft.  I believe that William Hewlett and David Packard had the same aspirations when they began Hewlett Packard.  I believe that Sergey Brin and Larry Page had the same aspirations when they began Google.  And I believe Mark Zuckerberg had the same aspirations for Facebook.   What may distinguish Apple from these other enterprises is that it never seems to have lost sight of the main point.  Neither, near as I can tell, did Hewlett Packard, at least until the shadow cast by its founders began to fade.  Microsoft arguably has, a victim, in part, of its extraordinary success but also a victim of a lost vision of what it was founded to do.  With Google, the jury is still out, though I think it is telling that when Brin and Page set up their IPO, they did it in their own way, to keep the bean counters from gaining control of the company.  It’s just that when the stakes get high enough, the pressure to deviate from your telos in the service of a business plan gets awfully hard to resist. 

            We deeply respect and admire people who are not “in it for the money.”  Even when such people accumulate a lot of it.  And not just in business.  Part of why Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are such heroes to New Yorkers is that they kept their exploits as appropriate fodder for the sports pages rather than the business pages (though the Yankees managed, crassly, to sully Jeter just a little bit this past off season).  They both want to do what they do as well as it can be done.  The money will take care of itself.  That’s why we admire first responders, and dedicated teachers and physicians.  When we know that people are not doing their jobs for the money, we don’t begrudge them their sometimes outsized rewards.  Even Goldman Sachs, the evil empire, was, until it went public, committed to serving clients and not (just) to serving itself.  The bankers at Goldman Sachs are, like Steve Jobs, both smart and creative (the investment instruments they and their fellow investment banks conjured up were nothing if not creative).  What led the investment banks astray was that they lost sight of their telos.  And in going astray, they took many of the rest of us down with them.

            And yet, despite our admiration for people who are not in it for the money, we keep thinking and acting as if the way to improve education, healthcare, finance, and pretty much everything else is to get the incentives right.  We don’t admire people who are in it for the money, and yet we try to fix our social institutions by acting as if we do. 

            It isn’t too late to wake up, to celebrate people who want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and to make it easier for them to do so.  A personal hero of mine, Bruce Springsteen, said it best in an interview he gave to Rolling Stone almost 20 years ago:

I understand that it’s the music that keeps me alive…That’s my lifeblood.  And to give that up for, like, the TV, the cars, the houses—that’s not the American dream.  That’s the booby prize, in the end. 

            If we remember that, and we celebrate Steve Jobs for the right reasons, perhaps we can create a society that makes it easier for others to follow in his wake.

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