Make a Dent in the Universe

3 Lessons from Becoming Steve Jobs

As an entrepreneur, it’s hard not to want to deconstruct the leadership of Steve Jobs after watching him lead Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world.

I came of age at a time when he began to make his dent in the universe, infusing his influence on me, an 11-year-old glued to the computer, programming video games in BASIC the year he unveiled the Macintosh. When I launched my startup at 25, he was just returning to Apple and as influential to me as ever.

So I eagerly bought the latest biography Becoming Steve Jobs, and these are the 3 key lessons I took away.

Reserve the Right to Change Your Mind at Any Time

“He had the courage to admit he was wrong, and to change, a quality which many people at that level, who have accomplished that much, lack,” [Apple CEO] Tim Cook said. “He wasn’t beholden to anything except a set of core values. Anything else he could walk away from. He could do it faster than anyone I’d ever seen before.”

I found this a powerfully liberating mindset we should all try and reinforce within ourselves, both to keep a mindful awareness of any attachment to our ideas and decisions as well as to understand and operate from our core values. It’s operating from those core values I’ve found to be the essential foundation for successful leadership. Changing my mind, especially on a project we had significantly invested in, has always been a powerful experience for me, and I believe most people involved.

I spoke with one of the co-authors, Rick Tetzeli, after a talk he gave at the San Francisco offices of media agency UM where he emphasized the rule Jobs had with his team.

“Jobs always reserved for himself the right to change his mind until the last minute, right at the premier,” Tetzeli said. “Even though he was brash and forthright. He’d say, ‘I know exactly what is going on.’ He could change his mind. And they still feel that way. That they can throw something out if it’s the wrong product.”

Cultivate Resilience

The thesis of the book is essentially that the Steve Jobs’ story is more of a growth story than a success story. After being ousted by the Apple board, he went on to found NeXT computer and purchase Pixar, both bleeding money throughout most of his time at the helm of these companies.

Jim Collins is the bestselling author of management books including one of my favorites, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, and he describes an essential characteristic of great leaders: deep restlessness.

“Back then, his restlessness sometimes seemed like impulsiveness. But he never gave up. He didn’t ever quit on Pixar or NeXT. What gave his particular restlessness real depth, then, was its relentlessness. ‘The things he was was trying to do,’ says Collins, ‘were always hard. Sometimes those things beat him up. But the response to fighting through that suffering can be tremendous personal growth.’”

He went on to talk about how we all get knocked down and tested, something I can viscerally relate to after nearly 20 years living the life of an entrepreneur. I think it’s a universal feeling whether you’re an entrepreneur of a company, the head of a group in your organization, or the leader of your household.

The first year I started my company, bootstrapping with friends and family loans, every day felt like touch and go. Heck, the first couple of years were like that. Failure was right around the corner. Mentally, I just told myself to live this next hour and make that work. Then my mindset was to just make that day work, then a week. On some of the bleakest days, a letter of encouragement from a friend or a single positive experience would get me through. Slowly, I was able to think of a month as a reality. Each day’s challenges solved made me more resilient for the next.

It’s the framing of how we approach those challenges, recognizing we are always growing and that each roadblock is an opportunity to solve a new problem, create a learning, and cultivate resilience. It’s a way of showing up in the world.

“We all get knocked down. Everyone does. Sometimes you may not even see that it’s happened, but it happens to everyone,” says Collins. “Whenever I find myself tired, whenever I’m thinking about whether I want to launch into another creative project, I always think of Steve in that period when he was in trouble. I’ve always drawn sustenance from that. That’s a touchstone for me, that willingness not to capitulate.”

What We Learn is Our Future

One of the most surprising pieces of the book was the foundation of the strategy that became Apple’s resurgence was actually outlined by Bill Gates during his final talk at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The digital hub strategy that spawned the concept of the iPod and iTunes was the response to Gate’s vision of the future, and the executives at Apple didn’t want that world to come to life with what they considered inferior tools by Microsoft.

However, the execution of that strategy wasn’t a grand plan that connected dots from the original iMac to the powerhouse of the iPhone and iOS devices. It was a continual discussion and iteration of learning, especially between Jobs and the person he collaborated with more closely than any other person in his career, Apple’s design chief Jony Ive.

“I’ve always thought there are a number of things that you have achieved at the end of a project,” [Ive] says. “There’s the object, the actual product itself, and then there’s all that you learned. What you learned is as tangible as the product itself, but much more valuable because that’s your future. You can see where that goes and demand more of yourself, being so unreasonable in what you expect of yourself and what we expect of each other, that it yields these even more amazing results, not just in the product but in what you learned.”

What we learn is our future. No matter the outcome, the success or the failure, awareness and respect for what we learn is the guide to our future. It was the guide that drove Apple’s innovation and was how Steve Jobs led Apple to become the most valuable company in the world.

“Ive believes that the lessons gained from each successive product development cycle fueled Steve’s unquenchable restlessness … Steve always wanted to look forward, and the completion of a device was just one more call to the future.”

What we learn is our future. No other lesson was more profound from Becoming Steve Jobs.

I asked Tetzeli if he thought Jobs would have liked the book and he said “he wouldn’t like it at all. There’s no question.” It’s a critique shared by others, especially those from the early years at Apple who thought those years were framed with too much negativity in service of the book’s narrative. Tetzeli thought he wouldn’t like it simply because Jobs wasn’t inclined to be so introspective with others.

Brent [Schlender], my cowriter, used to ask him retrospective questions … like where do you think you developed this persistence, does that go back to your father or is that something you learned at NeXT or something, and Steve said, ‘Who are you? Larry King?’” as Jobs then deflected the question back on the author, Tetzeli said. “So this is not at all what he would have liked.”

The authors also interviewed Bill Gates who thought Steve Jobs as a unique managerial case, one that had limited applications. “‘Maybe you should call your book Don’t Try This at Home,’ he said, only half joking.” Maybe that’s true and Gates probably also has a biased opinion, but either way there are definitely lessons from his growth and leadership. As so many of the people who were unceremoniously fired by Steve Jobs said, they wouldn’t have stayed around so long if there wasn’t something compelling about his leadership.

After nearly 20 years as an entrepreneur, I know growing and learning are job requirements. New challenges come at me so often that looking for lessons on how to adapt and lead are what keep me thriving.

Reserving the right to change our mind, cultivating resilience, and knowing what we learn is our future all resonate with me as compelling leadership and part of a mix of traits that help make a dent in the universe.