Different thinking on Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs implored us all to “Think Different.” And while I don’t claim that any of what follows is particularly original, I do think that the conventional wisdom on Jobs deserves some push back. Jobs was clearly a talented, passionate, and influential person and I’m sorry he’s dead. What follows is designed less as a critique on Steve Jobs or Apple, and more as a counterbalance to the public reactions to Jobs’ passing. Here goes…

1. CEOs don’t matter as much as we think

It’s human nature to attribute the success or failure of organizations to the individuals we see as running them. But we tend to over-emphasize the importance of those individuals. My favorite example of this is political candidates. To really understand campaigns it’s often more useful to remember that campaigns are organizations, not candidates. Candidates are a powerful part of the campaign, but at the end of the day, a campaign is an organization. The same thing applies even more to the presidency. And it applies to major companies. Here’s an excerpt from The Drunkard’s Walk, a book on the history and practical application of probability:

In major corporations, in which operations are large and complex and to a great extent affected by unpredictable market forces, the causal connection between brilliance at the top and company performance is even less direct and the efficiency of reactionary firings is no greater than it is in sports. Researchers at Columbia University and Harvard, for example recently studied a large number of corporations whose bylaws made them vulnerable to shareholders’ demands that they respond to rough periods by changing management. They found that in the three years after the firing there was no improvement, on average, in operating performance (a measure of earnings.) No matter what the differences in ability among CEOs, they were swamped by the effect of the uncontrollable elements of the system, just as the differences among musicians might become unapparent in a radio broadcast with sufficient noise and static. Yet in determining compensation, corporate boards of directors often behave as if the CEO is the only one who matters.

I think it’s fair to say we tend to make the same sort of error in over-attributing Apple’s success (or failure while he was away) to Jobs. As one blogger succinctly put it:

No matter how much we enjoy our iPods and iPhones, we should be careful about attributing their existence to individual “genius” rather than to collective effort and the education and organization on which that effort depends.

2. The innovations we associate with Apple mostly would have happened anyway

My second mp3 player was an iPod. I forget who made my first. Perhaps Samsung? The iPod was an upgrade in many ways, and a downgrade in others. Most notably, it stored a ton more music. And I suppose it looked fairly snazzy. (Although, my dad had the original iPod and that thing looked like a glass paperweight.) But it was also huge and bulky. That plus the fact that it used a hard drive rather than flash memory made it much worse for running. My point is simply that iPod didn’t invent mp3 players. They made good (but expensive and imperfect) ones and helped shape their direction, sure. But if Apple never got into the market, we’d still all be using mp3 players.

This doesn’t take away from the success of Apple, with Jobs at the helm, in its endeavors. But it does point to what I think is a more accurate understanding of Jobs’ legacy: he identified promising, existing technologies and he marketed them. That’s surely important. From the graphical user interface he saw back at Xerox to mp3 players, mobile devices that are both phones and computers, and finally tablets, Jobs oversaw the design of some really good products. He helped make them cool. But for the most part, they would have existed with or without his involvement, and even with or without Apple.

3. Shiny != Great

Aesthetics aren’t everything. A developer friend explained the genius of Jobs as convincing people they need extremely expensive, high end electronics, instead of the minimum to meet their requirements. That PCs are both cheaper and uglier isn’t entirely unrelated.

4. Closed systems do damage

Richard Stallman has caused a lot of controversy for a callous blog post in response to Jobs’ death. I wish Stallman had been more respectful, but that doesn’t make his basic point wrong: Apple under Steve Jobs championed closed systems. If you’re of the view that open systems are beneficial for the world in various ways, it’s fair to say that Jobs’ legacy in that respect is negative. (For my money, the value of open systems is well articulated by both Lessig and Benkler. You may favor others, or you may disagree. But it’s a well-credentialed position.) One caveat: good for developers is distinct from good for the world. As a non-developer, I have no view on the former. I’m talking about the broad normative benefits of open systems.

5. The charity thing

I sincerely hope that this changes following his death, but the charity thing is kind of an elephant in the room. From DailyFinance, when he resigned as CEO:

[Mr Jobs] doesn’t give any money to charity. And when he became Apple’s CEO he stopped all of its philanthropic programs. He said, “wait until we are profitable”. Now Apple is profitable, and sitting on $40 billion in cash, and still no corporate philanthropy. I actually think Jobs is probably the most charitable guy on the planet. Rather than focus on which mosquitoes to kill in Africa (Bill Gates is already focusing on that), Jobs has put his energy into massively improving quality of life with all of his inventions.

Both The Economist and Dealbook are good on this. You don’t have to be a raging lefty to find it troubling that someone so wealthy foregoes charity so completely. And don’t think the libertarians aren’t making hay out of this.

6. Dubious commencement advice

From his 2005 Stanford commencement address:

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.

Both Robin Hanson and Will Wilkinson have taken this on already, although I swear I had it on my outline of this post before I read them! I’d describe this slightly differently than Robin or Will. I think of this as a clear bias. We only hear from the people who take this path and have it work out. Imagine that there’s a “play it safe” career route and a “follow your dreams” route. The former has high odds of a secure life that is moderately fulfilling, and very low odds on either end of the spectrum of either a) fantastic success that allows for the kind of engagement Jobs describes or b) abject failure leading to considerable stress and unhappiness. The “follow your dreams” route, by contrast, has slightly higher odds of fantastic success and engagement, but they are still low. The odds of stable and moderately fulfilling are significantly lower, and the odds of abject failure and the corresponding negatives is no longer insignificant.

In this scenario I’ll leave it to you to pick your path. But my problem is that we don’t have an accurate picture of the “follow your dreams” route, because we tend to hear about that one mostly from the folks for whom it works out! If 1000 people born the same year as Jobs took that path and he’s the one who made it, he gives the commencement speech and the 999 aren’t much heard from. So we’re getting obviously biased information.

Now it’s somewhat unfair to pick on Jobs here, since this sort of advice is so pervasive in our culture. And it basically is the commencement speech genre. Heck, I even buy it plenty of the time. (This, for instance.) But that doesn’t make it right. And with Jobs’ speech cruising around the web, it seemed worth pointing out.

7. “Think different” is often a terrible way to think

If you’re setting out to create a new, innovative product, the mantra “Think different” makes a lot of sense. But in at least as many (and likely more) scenarios in everyday life it’s a terrible way to think! Take, for instance, politics. If you’re an average citizen, “think different” is just about the worst thing you can do with respect to, say, the impacts of climate change, the effects of marginal tax rates, etc. In all sorts of scenarios, the mantra needs to be “think boring”. Again, this is a bit unfair, as I’m sure Jobs never meant to suggest that everyone should be creative in picking a stimulus multiplier, but with this line bouncing around I had to say it.

And, finally, can we please not compare him to Gandhi?

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