I’m sad Steve Jobs is gone. I’m sadder still to see the shallow thinking that circles his name. There is a fallacy around “great” people, a notion we can learn best from their behavior for how we ourselves can achieve. But that’s only true if we study them with an honest eye. When writers are clouded by mythology and hero worship, they do more harm than good, as sloppy thinking is often the mortar used to put people on pedestals.
Before anyone takes Jobs as an example to emulate, consider the following:
- You did not have the good fortune to meet a Wozniak.
- You are not as smart as Steve Jobs was.
- You do not have the talent to back up a Jobs sized ego.
- You are not willing to take the same kinds of risks.
- You do not work as hard as he did.
- Do you believe in The Golden Rule?
- Can you justify being cruel to people you claim to love to serve yourself?*
Using Jobs as an example without examining these facts makes you a fool.
We overstate how much can be learned from exceptional people. Their success is a product of circumstance, among other factors, but we dismiss those circumstances when we wishfully consider our own futures. You can’t copy and paste success. We learn of people like Jobs in retrospect, long after they’ve proven their value to the world, and most of what we learn of their lives is tainted by romance and dreams. We heartlessly ignore their personal failings and cruel behavior in favor of their financial success.
Articles with idiotic premises like Steve Jobs solved the Innovator’s Dilemma, or In Defense of Steve Jobs, would likely annoy Jobs to no end. He had a humble attitude about innovation theories and doubted the utility of thinking of work in such abstract terms. He was too busy working to formulate a ‘process’ or a ‘model’, much to the frustration of tech and business writers everywhere. He was asked once ‘How do you systematize innovation?’ and his answer was ‘You don’t’ (See BusinessWeek, 10/11/04). He was in some ways more humble and practical than writers who use his name as a puppet to make half-baked, poorly researched points, that help no one achieve anything.
We are fascinated by our giants and this fascination motivates us to learn. This is good. But we continually forget every story in this world is unique. We can’t cherry pick the convenient elements of one successful life and graft it into our own, expecting the same results. Had da Vinci or Ford been born today, they might have ended up janitors or car salesmen. And a school teacher or gardener from their times, born today, might have transformed the world. We don’t want to see success as fragile or circumstantial, but the slightest touch of chance in the lives of any great man or woman, and we’d never know their names.
The unspoken part of greatness is the courage to venture into the unknown. But if we look too closely at the great people of our past, and use our hindsight of their lives as a map, we end up seeing the world backwards. They had no map in front of them when they lived their lives. The flaw in studying a legend too closely is you will keep your eyes buried in the fantasy of repeating someone else’s past, instead of looking to horizons of your own making.