Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco
In recent days, everyone has taken the news of Steve Jobs’ resignation and illness in different ways. For me, it has conjured up admiration and curiosity. More than anything else, I have always respected Jobs’ clarity. True, the man has always shunned the status quo, but I believe his rebel ways were only a consequence of his efforts to stay true to an original vision. Jobs didn’t “think different” just for the sake of it, he just refused to conform to traditional expectations and limitations.
Some say Jobs’ possessed a “reality distortion field.” I’d argue that it was, in fact, a sense of clarity so powerful that no obstacle could get in the way of creating perfect products.
Apple did not invent the mp3 player, the tablet, or the smartphone. But while other companies made compromises and took shortcuts to get to market, Jobs had a knack for sticking with his vision of what a product could and should be. I can only imagine the constant stream of obstacles he faced as Apple began to execute these ideas:
Material shortages and cost limitations
Ensuring compatibility with previous software
Market research with conflicting messages
Pre-existing patents and features from competitors
Marketing and sales deadlines
It must have been so seductive to stray at any moment and compromise to get it done. As people around him said, “Let’s just let that go because [fill in the great excuse here],” Jobs always somehow stayed course.
Perhaps the difference between Steve Jobs and the “visionaries” at other great companies was his ability to not only see what the future of technology could be, but to work toward that vision without obstruction.
Jobs had a knack for sticking with his vision of what a product could and should be.
Obstruction is all the stuff that gets in the way of making the best possible decisions. The drive toward a “better quarter” is a frequent obstruction for CEOs when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. A bullshit legal requirement for more explanation on a product’s packaging is an obstruction to a clear marketing strategy. The desire to shave four cents from the assembly of a product is an obstruction to building it the right way.
Needless to say, it’s easy to lose grasp of a bold vision once the journey begins. Most leaders tack right and left as obstacles reveal themselves, and then they arrive at an entirely different destination. Jobs was different. He had a maniacal grasp of his vision and was unwilling to let other people — even his customers — shift him off-course.
Jobs never compromised and gave us what we wanted, he stayed true to his vision and gave us what we needed.
Most leaders tack right and left as obstacles reveal themselves, and then they arrive at an entirely different destination.
In addition to the external obstacles that obstruct vision, there are also internal obstacles. These are our demons — the self-doubt, the fear of failure, and the impulse to meet others’ short-term expectations at the expense of long-term possibilities. It turns out that Jobs had a mechanism to see beyond this sort of obstacle as well. In his now legendary Stanford graduation speech in June 2005, Jobs shared insight into his personal source of clarity, helping us to understand the spectacularly gutsy decisions he made time, and time again, throughout his career. Even if you’ve read it before, read it again:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Indeed, there isn’t, and the only time we think otherwise is when this stark truth — that there is nothing to lose in staying true to what you envision — is obstructed by the froth of short-sighted hopes and fears.
The system in which we work is full of expectations cast upon us from our first breath. Every degree of success is accompanied by an equal dose of bureaucracy. Any early success that you may have only breeds higher expectations and a burden to deliver. This burden is a weight that often obstructs vision and sound judgment.
Usually, it takes something extreme, even death itself, to look past obstructions and maintain clarity. Perhaps the legacy of Steve Jobs as a leader is a call for clarity. If only we could all pursue our own visions with a little less obstruction.
There are a lot of great ideas in this world, and the obstacles that get in the way are no excuse. Steve would never stand for it, and neither should we.