Taste and consequences

It’s not possible to get to know a man just by reading a book about him. And yet, that’s what many of us are trying to do with the Steve Jobs biography. To be fair, we do this whenever we hear stories about people. We tend to forget that ther’s more to a person than the scraps of information we can extract about them from others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we must place our opinions in the proper context.

I realize that my thoughts on Steve Jobs are not only based on imperfect words on a page, but I’m also reading those words through the biased lens I use to perceive the world. At best, I’m getting an interpretation of a copy of who he really was. And I’m ok with that, because even feint copies of an original can teach us things, which is why we read these human stories in the first place.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, I believe that Steve Jobs’s genius was rooted in two main character traits: Insanely great taste, and an inability to compromise on that taste at all. This inspires me, but the way his unwillingness to compromise came out of him also makes me extremely uncomfortable.

Jobs’s impeccable taste was evident from very early on:

[T]he Macintosh team came to share Jobs’s passion for making a great product, not just a profitable one. “Jobs thought of himself as an artist, and he encouraged the design team to think of ourselves that way too,” said Hertzfeld. “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.” He once took the team to see an exhibit of Tiffany glass at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan because he believed they could learn from Louis Tiffany’s example of creating great art that could be mass-produced. Recalled Bud Tribble, “We said to ourselves, “˜Hey, if w’re going to make things in our lives, we might as well make them beautiful.'”

He understood the intersection of beauty, art, and technology perhaps better than anyone before him (have you notice how recently everything is starting to look like an Apple product?). But his inability to compromise on his almost-perfect taste manifested itself in being a bit of a jerk sometimes. By now, everyone knows the stories about how mean Jobs could be to his employees. My current favorite is the anecdote of what happened when Bruce Horn decided to leave the company. It summarizes Jobs’s volatility so perfectly:

When Horn went in to say goodbye, Jobs told him, “Everything that’s wrong with the Mac is your fault.” Horn responded, “Well, actually, Steve, a lot of things that are right with the Mac are my fault, and I had to fight like crazy to get those things in.” “You’re right,” admitted Jobs. “I’ll give you 15,000 shares to stay.” When Horn declined the offer, Jobs showed his warmer side. “Well, give me a hug,” he said. And so they hugged.

This kind of story is typical throughout the book. He was able to go from “you’re doing crap work!” to “let’s hug” in less than 10 seconds. What makes me uncomfortable is how effective this erratic management style appears to have been. I almost wish we could point to Steve Jobs and say, “see how destructive it is when you’re mean to people?” But her’s the thing: it worked. The Mac team were some of the most brilliant engineers on the planet, because only the good ones were able to survive Jobs’s wrath. And Jobs knew this:

But Jobs had latched onto what he believed was a key management lesson from his Macintosh experience: You have to be ruthless if you want to build a team of A players. “It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players,” he recalled. “The Macintosh experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.”

Even the team themselves seemed to be ok with this style in the end (yes, they were the A players who “survived”, but still):

“As every day passes, the work fifty people are doing here is going to send a giant ripple through the universe,” he said. “I know I might be a little hard to get along with, but this is the most fun thing I’ve done in my life.” Years later most of those in the audience would be able to laugh about the “little hard to get along with” episodes and agree with him that creating that giant ripple was the most fun they had in their lives.

So the source of my extreme discomfort with the Steve Jobs story is that I so desperately want to believe that being a jerk to people isn’t a good way to get the best out of them. But Jobs showed that it certainly is a way to get extraordinary results from a smart, dedicated team. My sense is that not many people can pull this off because you have to be able to back up that behavior with the level of taste that he possessed. This could be the reason why most managers who resort to jerk behavior don’t get the same results from their teams – they have no taste.

For my part, I’m going to take the safer road and stick with the advice given in What Motivates Us To Do Great Work?:

For creative thinkers, [there are] three key motivators: autonomy (self-directed work), mastery (getting better at stuff), and purpose (serving a greater vision). All three are intrinsic motivators. Even a purpose, which can seem like an external motivator, will be internalized if you truly believe in it.

I probably won’t make as big of a dent in the universe as Steve Jobs did, but that’s going to have to be ok.