How Steve Jobs’ differences ended up changing the world for all of us
Steve Jobs identified himself as an outsider.
He celebrated it, attaching the brand of Apple Computers to the people who felt different.
In 1984, Apple launched an ad reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, with a young woman in orange running shoes throwing a hammer at an imge of Big Brother (meant to represent IBM computers).
The 1990 Apple advertisement famously proclaimed: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels,” with black and white footage of paradigm shifters like Gandhi, Einstein, Hitchcock and many others. The ad went on to assert “They push things forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.”
This campaign launched Apple’s new branding “Think Different”.
Jobs clearly saw himself in this mould. A man who thought different. A man who, even before he was born, was different from the people around him.
Jobs was the biological child of a Catholic mother, Joanne Carole Schieble whose father refused to let her marry her baby’s father, Abdulfattah ‘John’ Jandali, threatening to disown her if she did not put the baby up for adoption. So insurance salesman, Paul Jobs, and book-keeper, Clara Jobs, became Steve’s parents.
Steve Jobs received the kind of outsider upbringing that supported his later pioneering mentality. He was always different from his parents. Throughout his life, Jobs was often the brightest person in the room. Paul and Clara could not keep up with the sharp mind of their son.
But they did provide Jobs with deep unconditional love: giving him an inner sense of security, the foundation of confidence that would put him in good stead as he continually pushed the boundaries throughout his life. Steve loved Paul and Clara deeply and was angry if anyone described them as his ‘adoptive parents’ rather than simply his ‘parents’.
Jobs emphasised that he was ‘chosen’ by Paul and Clara. Many of his friends and colleagues believed he never got over his sense of being abandoned at birth, but Jobs himself denied that he felt abandoned. He did admit that being adopted may have made him feel more independent and special.
This combination of security and dislocation is common in pioneering outsiders. Knowing you are different makes new ways of seeing a normal part of your existence. Knowing you are loved, even though you are different, provides the confidence to take the risk of sharing the new with others.
This kind of confidence has a huge effect on the health, happiness and effectiveness of outsiders. It is the key to our well-being, as we remain free of the fear of rejection. It is the key to creativity as we develop the resilience to deal with the judgement that any different way of doing things inevitably generates.
Creativity can come from bringing together ideas from two different worlds. Jobs did this with Apple: bringing together the power of electronics with a passion for human-centric design.
Jobs moved computing from the realm of the geek to the realm of the every day. It was only a couple of decades ago that anyone who wanted to use a computer had to know at least a bit of programming.
Jobs did not, himself, invent most of the products Apple became famous for. Steve Wozniak was the electronics genius in the early days of Apple Computers. The point and click desktop interface was actually invented at Xerox Parc. And the mp3 player was invented years before the iPod made tiny music devices ubiquitous.
But Jobs’ creative genius was in seeing what was going to make a product beautiful, easy to use – and desirable. Apple technology has not always been functionally the best on the market, but it has always been appealing. Jobs pushed the boundaries of gorgeousness and simplicity and developed a huge following as a result.
Combining aspects of two worlds is always creative, if not always world-changing. Paul Simon brought together American and South African music when he created Graceland. Gregor Mendel, the creator of the game changing science of genetics, combined biology with mathematics. And modern telephones are now not only cameras and music players, but banking outlets, games machines, TVs, clocks, weather forecasters…. you name it.
Outsiders often have a foot in two camps. For a start, there is the thing that makes you feel different in the first place: the culture you come from, your sexuality, your physical or mental ability, your tastes in music, art or fashion, your politics, anything, in fact that makes you uniquely you.
Secondly you have your insight into the mainstream. Even if you feel excluded from this mainstream, you will have some insight into the dominant culture. It is inescapably all around you, and navigating life means doing things in the same way that the majority of people do things around here.
So, outsiders embody the conditions necessary for creativity. You are already a citizen of two (or more) worlds.
Fusion foods, which combine food from a specific culture with western tastes, is an example of how two cultures combine to create something new and delicious.
The same can be seen in art, music, fashion, furniture and even science. Modern medicines are often ‘discovered’ by tapping into remedies used for hundreds of years in local communities, testing and marketing them for the western world. Synthesizing existing knowledge with scientific techniques can create a new way of learning about and spreading this knowledge around the world. (It can also limit it through patents and high costs – but that is a different story!)
Jobs was a natural at using this ability to combine ideas. He believed that people needed to travel out of their own locality to expand their minds and see different ways of doing things. Here is what he said about creativity in Wired in Feb 1995:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Jobs talked about his own inspiration when he said:
“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Jobs combined universal human characteristics into his device designs. He was famously scornful, for example, of hand-held electronics that used a stylus, saying of touch screen devices, “if you see a stylus, they blew it”.
Instead, when launching the iPhone in 2007 he said “We’re going to use the best pointing device in the world. We’re going to use a pointing device that we’re all born with – born with ten of them. We’re going to use our fingers.”
Famously, Jobs was also a communicator. In fact, he was such a well-known communicator that his example is frequently quoted in books and resources used to teach others about communication.
Jobs practised his presentations again and again. Like his designs, he simplified his slides, so they showed only single images and (usually) no words. He spoke to the heart of what worked for people, with new devices functioning in intuitive ways.
Because Jobs knew, fundamentally, that to be different is not about cutting ourselves off, but about having the courage to raise the bar, to hone your message so much that in the end the differences disappear and the universal is revealed.
As outsiders, fearful of rejection and tempted to fit in, we would do well to remember his example. He was not easy to work with. He was not easy to satisfy. But he didn’t compromise.
Conforming serves nobody. Being who you are, however imperfect, can change the world – for everyone.
Devi Clark is Founder and Editor at the Outsiders’ Network. Devi also coaches careers changers who want a meaningful ethical career at NewLeaf Coaching and is the licencee and curator for TEDxAylesbury.