Setting the Bar, Learning from Failure, and Other Lessons from Steve

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After crazy couple of weeks in the consumer electronics / smartphone / computer / telecom mega-industry  (it's really all one now), another bombshell arrived yesterday with the news that Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO and is taking on role of chairman of the board. In reality, it probably means he will be in an advising capacity not unlike what he's probably been doing for the last year while on medical leave. But still, a shock to the system.

The fact that he's been able to carry on having any significant executive role at Apple is testament to how passionate and dedicated he is to the company. For quite a long time now he's had another full-time job (and I'm not talking Pixar or being on the board of Disney): fighting cancer. Best wishes to you in that challenge, Steve.

There's a lot of speculation on how Apple will do now that Jobs is no longer at the helm. I for one think it will do just fine for quite a while - it's got a very solid culture that will endure, huge momentum in the market, no debt, probably the strongest brand in the world, and the upper hand in almost every market it's in.

Setting the Bar Crazy High

All of us in the design and innovation biz have a lot to thank Steve Jobs for. He opened up the play space for us by setting the bar so ridiculously high. This did several things:

  • It set a standard for quality, invention, and consistency that inspired others, and allowed much greater latitude for pushing the boundaries of form, materials and interactions. A staple of client requests in the last decade has been "I want the iPod of [my category]" (which became "I want the iPhone of..." and then "iPad of..."). Meaning of course that they didn't want a literal iPod, but they wanted the same kind of game-changing product, business opportunity, and user experience which these devices came to represent. Most companies, however, underestimate how difficult that is to do from a cultural, technical, organizational, and business perspective (especially if you want to do this repeatedly, not just a one-off).
  • It changed people's expectations for design, products and experiences even in categories far beyond the ones Apple plays in. A good example is the current trend of consumerization of IT, where expectations about ease of use, flexibility, and joy of use from consumer applications are now being forced onto staid IT systems. Why does the online expense-filing application my company pays a lot of money for have to suck so bad, when the free site I use for sharing photos handles so much more complexity so much more easily?

Failure Can Make You Stronger

In 1965, the Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire while still on the launchpad, killing all three astronauts. It was a televised, very public failure for NASA as it desperately tried to overtake the Russians for the race to the moon. While it was tragic, it also prompted a critical reassessment of the program that ultimately made it better. Retired astronaut John Young said, "I can assure you if we had not had that fire and rebuilt the command module ... we could not have done the Apollo program successfully. So we owe a lot to Gus, and Rog and Ed. They made it possible for the rest of us to do the almost-impossible."

Jobs has been quite open about the fact that after he was fired from Apple, he went through a difficult period. But ultimately this made him a better leader, and he returned to the company after eleven years quite a different person than he had left it. I think it's fair to say that Apple is a better and more successful company now than if he'd been at the helm for the entire time.

In his humble, inspiring speech to the graduating class at Stanford, he put it this way:

"So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. [...]

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. [...]

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle."

Spend a lunch break watching the whole thing if you haven't, it's worth your while.

 

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