How To Think Like Steve Jobs
Carmine Gallo, 10.19.10, 4:30 PM ET
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, recently wrote that America’s core competency is its ability to attract, develop and unleash creative talent. He suggested that what America needs if it is to emerge from the Great Recession even stronger than before is more Jobs–Steve Jobs. That sounds good on paper, but how does Steve Jobs do it? How did Apple’s chief executive pioneer the personal computer, revive the Apple brand in 1997 when it was close to bankruptcy and grow Apple into the most valuable tech company in the world? That’s the question I took on in writing my new book, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs.
In dozens of interviews with former Apple employees, analysts and experts, I learned that Steve Jobs does “think different” from the vast majority of business leaders. But he does so using techniques that are available to anyone who wants to improve their odds of achieving breakthrough success. They are techniques that psychologists have told me play an important role in developing new products, companies and methods.
The company name Apple fell from a tree, dropping right into Jobs’ vision of what a computer should be–simple and approachable. When he and his boyhood pal Steve Wozniak decided to start their own company, with $1,000, they needed just a name to make the partnership complete. As Woz tells the story, “I remember I was driving Steve back from the airport along Highway 85. Steve was coming back from a visit to Oregon to a place he called an ‘apple orchard.’ Steve suggested a name–Apple Computer. … We both tried to come up with technical-sounding names that were better, but we couldn’t think of any good ones. Apple was so much better. So Apple it was. Apple it had to be.”
The naming of Apple was just the beginning. Many of Jobs’ most intriguing ideas would arise from the most unlikely locations and experiences–studying calligraphy in college, or visiting an ashram in India or the kitchen appliance department at Macy’s. Jobs exposes himself to a broad set of human experiences; experiences that literally kick-start the creative process.
Psychologists have worked tirelessly trying to figure out what makes innovators different. In one of the most thorough examinations of the subject, Harvard researchers interviewed 3,000 executives over six years, and they found that the No. 1 skill that separated innovators from noncreative professionals was “associating”–having an ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields. The three-year Harvard research project confirmed what Jobs had told a reporter 15 years earlier: “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Jobs is a classic iconoclast, one who aggressively seeks out, attacks and overthrows conventional ideas. And iconoclasts, especially successful ones, have an “affinity for new experiences,” according to the Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns.
Jobs sees the same things as other leaders, but he perceives them differently. Perception separates the innovator from the imitator. For example, dozens of people saw the graphical user interface set-up at the Xerox PARC facility in Palo Alto, but it was Jobs who, in 1979, perceived it differently and went on to adopt and adapt the technology for what ultimately became the first Macintosh computer, in 1984.
The key to thinking differently is perceiving things differently. To perceive things differently, you must be exposed to divergent ideas, places and people. This forces your brain to make connections it otherwise might miss. Steve Jobs has done this his entire life. He dropped out of college so he could “drop in” to classes that really interested him, such as calligraphy, whose lessons would come back to him years later when he designed the Mac, the first personal computer with beautiful fonts. Jobs wanted the Apple II to be the first personal computer people used in their homes, so he sought inspiration for it in the kitchen appliance aisle at Macy’s. And when he hired musicians, artists, poets and historians on the original Macintosh team, he was again exposing himself to new experiences and novel ways of looking at problems.
Some of his most creative insights have resulted directly from novel experiences either in physical places or among people with whom he chose to associate. For example, when he started the Apple Stores, he purposely avoided hiring someone from the computer industry. Instead he tapped a former Target executive, Ron Johnson. Jobs and Johnson sought ideas from outside the computer industry. They asked themselves, “Who offers the best customer service experience?” The answer: Four Seasons hotels. Walk into an Apple Store. You won’t find a cashier, but you will find a “concierge.” There’s a reason for that.
Does Steve Jobs perceive things differently? Absolutely. Is that a skill unique to him? No. You can learn to be more creative as long as you keep in mind that your brain will fight you every step of the way. By pursuing new experiences and thinking differently about common problems, you are asking your brain to expend energy when its natural role is to conserve as much energy as possible. It’s not easy, but by forcing yourself out of your comfort zone, physically and mentally, you will kick-start an improvement of the odds of generating remarkable new ideas that have the potential of transforming your business and your life.
Carmine Gallo is a communications coach and the author of four books, including The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success (McGraw-Hill, October, 2010). Visit him online at www.carminegallo.com.great ideas, Great Minds, Steve Jobs