The Jobsian fallacy

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:

    1. You did not have the good fortune to meet a Wozniak.
    2. You are not as smart as Steve Jobs was.
    3. You do not have the talent to back up a Jobs sized ego.
    4. You are not willing to take the same kinds of risks.
    5. You do not work as hard as he did.
    6. Do you believe in The Golden Rule?
    7. 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.

*added 10/1/2015

22 Responses to “The Jobsian fallacy”

  1. Kevin

    Jeez, what a negative way to look at things, to think that the most important takeaway from Steve Jobs is “You are not as smart as Steve Jobs, don’t even try to do what he did”.

    1. Richard

      I don’t think that’s at all what the point of the article is. To me it seems more like “don’t try to do what he did, do your own thing”.

      The matter if whether you are or aren’t smarter than Jobs can only be proven in hindsight ;-)

  2. Sean Crawford

    Well done Scott. I guess the flip side of North Americans being naive and idealistic is they can be too hard on themselves. Your piece is incisive.

  3. alexandru totolici

    It may perhaps be a little cliché to reference Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” here, but this echoes a lot of the findings of that work as well. Grit and grind are important in becoming successful, but they are insufficient; many greats have also benefitted immensely from the context of their life, and of their upbringing, and of their peers. Excluding those aspects when judging one’s accomplishments may lead to a nice story, but it also leads to fiction.

  4. Piotr Tyburski

    You’ve emphasized well in “Myths of innovation” how people love easy recipes and naive conclusions. That’s the same story, only this time with Steve Jobs in the headline.

  5. TesTeq

    I’ve worked with fellow engineers as good as Wozniak (and I’ve met Wozniak himself too). There’s no evidence that Jobs was smarter then me or had a bigger talent. I took risks and worked as hard as he did. And I feel good being a successful entrepreneur in my area. Haven’t you heard about me? To tell you the truth – I don’t care. I have my own proofs of my success!

    But I agree that it can be very frustrating to try to be like Jobs.

  6. AntS

    Your reference to school teacher here is cheap, shallow and contemptuous. In the wider world, outside whatever narrow tech/media bubble you apparently float around in, great teachers regularly change people’s lives more frequently than billionaire tech CEOs selling us shiny toys. And they do it largely unseen and unheralded, day by day, for less pay in a year than those gadget-hawking executives you seem more enamoured by make in a day.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I have great respect for the humble significance of what teachers do (and janitors, and gardeners, as well). I don’t think I suggested there was anything wrong, or less than noble, about ordinary work.

      1. AntS

        Sure that wasn’t your intention ..and I was in full agreement with you up till that point. Maybe just a little clumsy in your choice of words, implication that people in those roles couldn’t somehow change the world unless they became a CEO or famous artist got my goat.

    2. Jeff Goldschrafe

      I think your entire diatribe is equally contemptuous, predicated on the notion that all CEOs are good for is “selling us shiny toys.” Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and our dealings with them can be direct or indirect. People can certainly make a real, lasting impact upon others without having a state certification and a degree in Child Study.

    3. Jonathan

      I’ve fed my family developing software on an Apple laptop for years. Is it still a toy?

  7. Robert Shaver

    I haven’t read those articles you sited but I’m not surprised they exist. Ever since I read some of Robert Ringer’s books like “Winning Through Intimidation” and “Looking Out for Number 1”, I’ve realized that most people don’t have a clue why they are successful.

    (I found part 2 of “Driving Your Own Karma: Swami Beyondananda’s Tour Guide to Enlightenment”, “Looking Out for Number Two: Swami’s Guide to Being on the Path” much more useful.)

  8. Kim Jong Il

    Comrade, I agree precisely. Proletariat get back on your treadmills!

  9. Leam Hall

    Passionate…that’s it! While I sometimes use as much “passion” in things I say when trying to drive an unpleasant point home, Scott is right. Becoming “world famous” has a strong element of divine providence required. The real point may be to learn from Jobs or other world famous people how I can do my own work better and be famous in my ability to feed and shelter my family. And various stray animals that make their way to our home. Can’t forget the unconditional love a dog provides; would that we were as good as our pets see us! (Someone else’s quote)

    Learn from Jobs, be inspired by the blogs, and loved at home. World famous becomes less important.

  10. Franklin Chen


    Interestingly, several days before your post appeared, I had some similar thoughts:

    However, there is something in your tone I don’t agree with. I don’t think the outpouring of praise for Jobs was entirely “idiotic”. It was just human and genuine, and I appreciated it, at the time. And there’s a time to move on; we both agree on that!

  11. Phil Simon

    Books like “The Halo Effect” underscore the dangers of retrospective thinking. Gladwell’s success proves that we like stories, even if they’re not necessarily true, complete, or causal.

  12. Francis

    While a lot of what you say makes sense, I feel your article is a bit condescending. Yes! you can learn from the behaviour of great men/women. What has been written about Jobs may be hyped up slightly, or a lot depending on your point of view, but just sitting back and saying “I can’t learn anything because his circumstances were different from mine” doesn’t make any sense to me. You take what you learn and use your own head to apply it to your life. If you are right and do that well, then maybe you get wealthy/world famous or maybe you don’t, if you are wrong, well, the status quo prevails



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