Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

“Just 3 Stories … No Big Deal” – Taking a Deeper Look at Steve Jobs’ Advice in His 2005 Stanford Address

The Hidden Message in Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford AddressIn 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford University, and told three main stories about his life and work. (Click here to view the 2005 Stanford Address.)  His talk has inspired many. But were there hidden messages in it? Was there deeper wisdom than most of us think?  Absolutely.  Let’s see if you agree.

But first, why this is so urgent and important? It’s because millions of people from career-changers to career-starters have been fed the line, ‘just follow your passion.’ Aside from that advice being wildly ambiguous, it’s often dangerous and misleading.

And although many people have attributed the line to Steve Jobs and his 2005 talk, the truth is Jobs himself never said the words. Not. Even. Once.

There are in fact deeper messages Steve Jobs was trying to tell us, and your career will likely only be more successful if you absorb these deeper messages.

A first clue about the deeper message is that Jobs says at the outset that he’s going to share his secrets in the shape of three stories: “Today, I want to tell you 3 stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just 3 stories.” [at 0:47 in the talk]

Actually, giving us three stories was a big deal. Jobs believed almost religiously in the rule of 3’s – the principle from rhetoric that you should communicate something in three parts. (Remember his launch of the iPhone? He said he was about to announce “three revolutionary products … an MP3 player, a phone, and an internet communicator …”. The magician’s surprise turned out to be that the three things were all in one device, the new iPhones.)

Story 1 = Passion 1: A Passion for Your Area and Learning It Deeply

On the surface, Jobs first story is about how he dropped out of Reed College. But if you dig deeper, it’s really about how he allowed his curiosity to draw him to certain subjects, and how he developed from his early days the habit of deep learning that lasted a lifetime:

“I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. [2:56] … I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example … . [3:21] I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif … about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful … artistically subtle … and I found it fascinating.” [3:49] [emphasis in bold added]

Notice that Jobs says he was following his “curiosity,” not ‘following his passion.’ There is a difference. Curiosity is very specific.

In other words, he went to classes to learn, not just cram for exams and get an A. The course on calligraphy was not just about fonts, it was about design, an area that came to dominate Jobs’ life – and lead him to many breakthroughs.

The words Jobs uses are a test for whether you have developed this same passion: interesting, curiosity, intuition, learn, beautiful, fascinating. Do you use words like these when you describe the area you’re in?

Key Message from Story 1: the first passion you need is a passion for the area you’re in, and a genuine desire to keep learning it.

Story 2 = Passion 2:  A Passion for the Processes in Your Area … especially the Collaborating and Learning from Failure

In all work, there is a process – or more accurately, processes.  Story 2, with all due respect, is often misquoted. The first key lesson in the story is in the first two lines:

“I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us … .” [5:42] [emphasis added]

The lesson is that he developed a passion and skill for collaborating. And not just collaborating in an average way. Jobs developed – from the age of 20 – a passion and habit for collaborating closely with highly talented people, experts who often had far more expertise than he did. That takes courage and confidence.

It’s that part of the process that Jobs continued to love and engage in throughout the rest of his career: he collaborated with all kinds of highly talented people, from the animators at Pixar to the designers at IDEO to his own Apple designers and programmers.

A further implicit message in this story is also found in that first quote: the better you get at what you do, the more you tend to have a passion for it.  It’s a virtuous cycle (the opposite of a vicious cycle).  Some psychologists call it a ‘cycle of accelerated returns.’  Others call it the 10-year rule, the idea that it usually takes about 10 years, through deliberate practice, to become really expert in a field.  Notice how Jobs’ and Apple’s first major success occurred after 10 years of collaborating:

“We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with 4,000 employees.” [5:50] [emphasis added]

The next part of Story 2 tells how Jobs came to value a part of the process you’ll  find in any field, especially today: learning from mistakes or failure. It’s the story of his 1985 dismissal from Apple:

“But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. [6:57] … And so I decided to start over. … 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.” [7:11] [emphasis added]

To illustrate, then, the real message in this second story, consider what happens when someone doesn’t grasp the lesson. Take for example the Yoga aficionado who decides to ‘just follow her passion’ and open her own Yoga studio. If she doesn’t have or at least develop a basic passion for the process (finding clients, finding a partner, collaborating, doing the admin, doing the marketing, renting the studio, handling the finances, etc. etc.), it’s a sure bet she’ll struggle, if not fail.

Key Message from Story 2: you need passion for the process that makes up the work you do – and, in particular, collaborating and learning from failure.

Story 3 = Passion 3: A Passion for What Gives You Meaning, a Sense of Purpose or Progress and How You Help People

If you want to watch your life ignite, listen to this third story once a day for a month.  Story 3 is about the deepest kind of passion of all: developing a passion for what your life and work are really all about:

“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… [9:39]. … And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. [12:05] … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” [12:31] [emphasis added]

How you develop your passion in this third circle is deeply personal, but Jobs ably points to the three main things that invariably give both life and work meaning – working to achieve real progress in your field (“Don’t be trapped by dogma”), developing your own sense of purpose (listen to “your own inner voice”), and, ultimately, make your life about serving other people:

The Hidden Message in Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Address

So there you go. When you look at the 2005 speech from this perspective, the talk can serve as a powerful set of career guidelines. Ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a passion for the area you’re in, and in learning it more deeply?
  2. Do you have a passion for the process in the work, and in particular for genuine collaborating and learning from failure?
  3. Do you have the passion that comes from a sense of purpose, striving for progress, or helping people?

Jobs’ wise counsel to us is not at all some vague idea about just following a mythical, single passion. It’s about three key passions.

If you can make your way to the intersection of those three circles, that’s when you’ll almost certainly have a life and career that are both truly successful and meaningful.


(Note: A version of this article can also be found on Linkedin.) 

Do You Buy into the Myth of the ‘Lone Genius?’ Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

Do you think Steve Jobs was a one-off, ‘lone genius.’  It’s tempting to believe that, and according to most tributes to him, he fit that so-called model. Surely only a lone genius could changing four different industries, as Jobs did, in one lifetime. The more romantic tributes suggest he did this virtually singlehandedly.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak - courtesy of Bloomberg.com

L to R: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, founders of Apple Computer.

Jobs obviously had an extraordinary life and career, but we make a great mistake if we portray him as the lone genius.

The reality is that Steve Jobs collaborated obsessively. Most of his pursuits were joint pursuits with others. Apple itself began as a close collaboration with Steve Wozniak. Without that collaboration, you might never have heard of either Steve. Later, Jobs pioneered the iPod and iPhone in collaboration with many at Apple, particularly Jonathan Ives, Apple’s chief designer.

Look at Steve Jobs’s own words about collaboration: “Process makes you more efficient. But innovation comes from people meeting in the hallways or calling each other … it’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.” (emphasis added)

So why do we perpetuate the myth of the ‘lone genius’? Because it’s romantic, and it sells copy, that’s why.

But it’s also wrong, and it’s also dangerous.

The evidence is in everywhere that great innovation comes from collaborating.

Keith Sawyer, one of the world’s leading experts on creativity, says that “we’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changed the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” His research shows that innovation results from a whole series of those sparks, not from just one or two lightbulb moments.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen - courtesy of Wired.com

L to R: Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft.

The examples are everywhere too. McCartney collaborating with Lennon. Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Elton John with Bernie Taupin. Francis Crick and James D. Watson at Cambridge teaming up brilliantly to pursue and then decode the mysteries of DNA. The Wright brothers working literally as brothers trying idea after idea to ultimately achieve the first man-made flight. Thomas Edison and his team of some thirty collaborators and assistants in what many consider now America’s first innovation laboratory.

The list goes on and on.

Yet so does the myth.

Sir Ken Robinson, another world expert on creativity, argues that even in the cases where the creative person appears to be working alone, they are in fact interacting with others in all kinds of ways, maybe even unconsciously. “Even working alone,” he says, “there is an essential cultural dimension to creative work that is of profound importance”. All human lives are lived in “webs of significance,” and creativity is the process by which we form these webs. Sir Isaac Newton said it best when he acknowledged how he achieved what he achieved: he said the if he saw further than others, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

A.G. Lafley, who led Proctor & Gamble (P&G) through the 2000s, helped resurrect P&G by making it one of the most innovative in the world. He says the biggest factor in the company’s new success was to shift innovation from an old-school R&D exercise into something truly collaborative. “Innovation is a team sport,” he said, and “diverse teams make breakthroughs,” not sole individuals. He therefore institutionalized within P&G a whole series of processes that required teams to pursue innovation.

One way he did this was to create a new innovation lab in Cincinatti now known as ‘Clay Street’ (a converted brewery, located on Clay Street). Here’s how Laffley puts it: “Clay Street is a methodology for bringing together people who haven’t workd together before to become a highly functioning team. All have great expertise. Some have very human egos. They learn how to submerge their egos, listen to each other, and build on each other’s ideas –quickly and without being critical of others and without the selfishness that the owner of an idea often exhibits.”

If it’s not clear by now, it should be: it’s time to bury the myth of the lone genius and grasp the urgent need to make innovation a team sport. If you’ve been raised in a culture that glorifies the individual, you may find this difficult.

If you’re still buying the myth of the lone genius (who is more than likely also a lonely genius), here’s another example of what the research has shown to be true:

“Isolation is bad for you. It poses dangers as serious as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, or lack of exercise, one research summary concluded. Conversely, the more good partnerships you have in your life, the more likely you are to say that you experienced the feeling of enjoyment much of the day yesterday, that you recently learned something interesting, and that you’ve been doing a lot of smiling and laughing – all key measures of your happiness. Even having one strong partnership markedly increases your well-being over those who have none.” 1



  1. Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller, The Power of Two, (Gallup Press, 2009), p. 2.

Cal Newport: Don’t Listen to the “Just follow your passion” Salesmen – Focus on Mastering Your Craft

You don’t have to look far today to find career advice promoting the idea that you should ‘just follow your passion and the success will follow.’ Those who give the advice typically quote Steve Jobs’ keynote address to 23,000 Stanford graduates in 2005, when he said: “you’ve got to find what you love … the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”

According to the usual claim, Steve Jobs followed his passion in life and that’s how he became an accomplished innovator. The suggestion is that passion was his big secret. Entire books have even promoted this idea. 1

The claim is alluring – who doesn’t want a life with passion in it? – but the claim is also simplistic and even dangerous.

Take, for example, the story of Lisa. Nearing 40, Lisa quit her career in advertising and marketing, and decided to pursue her passion for Yoga by starting a Yoga business. She took out a home-equity loan, got certified in Yoga, started the business, and four years later she was virtually broke and on food stamps.

Or take the story of Jane. Jane is a young millenial who dropped out of college after her first year. Why? She wanted follow her passion for adventure. Her so-called innovative idea was to develop a non-profit that would promote her “vision of health, human potential and a life well-lived.” Her plan was to build one or more websites that would generate passive income to finance this non-profit. She began in earnest, but when her websites failed to generate any income, her plan cratered.

These are just two of the stories Cal Newport describes in his 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

In the book, Newport sets out example after example to debunk the “passion mindset” – the idea that Lisa and Jane bought into, and that is peddled so widely today.

Of particular interest are Newport’s findings regarding creating a true sense of mission and the quest to come up with genuine innovation.

Newport draws on the work of Stephen Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From as he ably debunks the myth that innovation comes from a single flash of insight: “We like to think of innovation as striking us in a stunning eureka moment, where you all at once change the way people see the world, leaping far ahead of our current understanding. I’m arguing that in reality, innovation is more systematic. We grind away to expand the cutting edge, opening up new problems in the adjacent possible to tackle and therefore expand the cutting edge some more, opening up more new problems, and so on.”

The sobering message is that innovation requires serious, hard work, often years of work. Genuine innovation tends to happen at the cutting edge of any field, in what’s called the “adjacent possible” – that next step that’s just beyond the current area of knowledge and understanding.

Ironically, according to Newport, this is also the very mindset that can produce a true sense of mission in a field, a sense of mission that creates a genuine feeling of passion for your work. It seems, then, the peddlers of the ‘just follow your passion’ advice have things quite backwards. It’s after you put in the hard work and develop a genuine feeling of mission that you come to develop a genuine passion for your work.

That’s the sound, solid advice to follow. But it’s not as sexy, so don’t expect it to become popular any time soon.


  1. Carmine Gallo, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs: “Real Artists Ship” – Here’s What He Meant

“Real artists ship.”
— Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, early years - courtesy of Bloomberg.com

Steve Jobs: ‘Real artists ship.’

According to the folklore at Apple, this was a favourite saying meaning you have to have the guts to actually deliver when it’s time to deliver.

In one instance in particular, Steve Jobs used the mantra to call the bluff of a reluctant engineer who didn’t think his code was ready.

Jobs laid down the law.

Seth Godin argues in his books that the real problem is fear.  It’s a lot safer to try to pretend that just a few more days will enable reaching perfection, but that’s just illusion. The real problem is fear.  And the solution is courage. That recalcitrant engineer, the argument runs, was simply prone to that overly-cautious lizard brain.

So in comes the ‘real artists ship’ mantra. It’s a call to arms, a suggestion that you should just fight back, suck it up, or ‘feel the fear and do it anyway,’ as one saying goes. Just do it. Give the send order. Hit the publish button. What the hell, go for it, even if the creative idea is only half-baked. The next adage you hear is that it’s okay to fail – in fact, fail early and fail often.

These just-do-it interpretations miss a key part of the quote – ‘real artists’ are first and foremost just that: real artists. And that means they actually do a few crucial things long before they ship.

If you focus on these other crucial things, you may find that the problem is not at all fear. It’s the absence of passion and purpose. It’s the absence of the drive and confidence that go hand in hand with passion and purpose.

So here’s another way to think about the ‘real artists ship’ mantra: Sure, you want to ship. You’re yearning to create what you’re yearning to create. But first ask if you’re doing what a ‘real artist’ does in the first place. The real artist does these three things:

Passion and Purpose Are the Drivers

Real Artists are first and foremost REALNotice that Jobs didn’t say ‘responsible companies ship on time.’ He wasn’t talking about mechanical operations. He was referring to how he and Apple had developed a purpose so clear it created an energy and drive that overpowered the stresses that come from doubt or fear. The lizard brain is puny compared to the power of purpose that forms in the higher parts of the brain.

Real Artists Collaborate

Even artists who appear to work alone collaborate in countless ways. Notice that Jobs himself in the example above was collaborating with the engineer. They both would have shipped nothing without that collaboration.

If you feel the tug of fear about finishing a creative project you’ve started, maybe the fear is a signal.  Maybe you need to first collaborate with a kindred spirit or colleague. Discuss it. Brainstorm. The encouraging words of a good mentor are in short supply these days, yet they’ve never been in greater demand.

Real Artists are True to Their Values, Calling

It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare feeling paralyzed by fear and saying to himself, ‘okay, Will, just feel the fear and do it anyway.’ He was pursuing what his heart called him to do. As he wrote in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” It was an expression of his own beliefs; like all writers, he placed his own ideas in the mouths of his characters.

So if you ever feel the tug of doubt about a creative project, maybe it’s a sign that the project is not aligned with your own values, your own true self. That’s okay, it may be a sign it’s the wrong project. It might be a sign to switch to that other project that really is in line with your true inner values and calling.

How to Create an Innovation Team

“Apple is an incredibly collaborative company,” Steve Jobs said. He may have been making an understatement.

Recently, I met with the CEO of a medium-sized nonprofit in the immigration services sector. His organization provides assistance to new immigrants in the country to help them get settled and adjust to a new life. The organization’s five-year stategic plan was coming to an end, and the CEO wanted to build a new strategy to grow the operations and deal with change like potential budget cuts.

Good Ideas vs Bad Ideas

An Innovation Team can sort the good ideas from the bad

“Do you have an innovation team?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

I explained that he should set one up – a team of key people, from management, staff and his board, to henceforth manage innovation. He liked the idea immediately, to his credit.

For the CEO, it was a new concept. He said he had never previously received advice to set up an innovation team. Quite the contrary, the organization’s existing strategic plan was the usual, outdated, stale corporate speak full of platitudes, vague strategic objectives, a wordy mission statement, and little substance.

Surprisingly, many organizations still follow these old models and methods. They see innovation as something only the big companies do. They are wrong.

If your organization is serious about dealing with change today, or aiming to grow its business, here is a simple three-step plan:

Step 1: The first step to is to set up the innovation team. This particular organization wanted to target the twin goals of developing new funding sources as well as expanding the services it provides. It will need to innovate in both areas.

Step 2: The next step is to put the right people on the innovation team. This is an art in itself. If there is one core principle to follow it is that you want to have a diversity of talent on the team. Creativity flourishes when there is a diversity of talents, skills and viewpoints.

Step 3: The third step is to train the team members to properly understand the innovation process and develop innovation skills.

By setting up a proper process to organize and manage innovation, you elevate it to one of the organization’s priorities. Innovating becomes part of the ongoing operations. New ideas are managed, turned into projects, and executed. It’s no longer just a matter of collecting good ideas and hoping someone acts on them.


Steve Jobs Simplified the Decision to Build the iPad by Asking the Right Question

In January 2010, when Steve Jobs introduced the new Apple iPad to the world, he showed a slide with a smart phone on the left, a laptop on the right, and a big question mark right in the middle.

Steve Jobs Introducing the iPad, 2010Then he said the question they asked at Apple was “is there room for a third category of device in the middle? … something that’s between a laptop and a smart phone … and of course, we’ve pondered this question for years as well.”

By asking the question this way, Jobs explained, the design team was forced to design a new tablet that could do things the other two devices could not. For this third category of device to be successful, it would have to be both highly portable and great for surfing the web, reading ebooks, sending email, playing games, and so on. That’s exactly what the iPad became.

Whatever you’re working on right now, does your success or failure depend on whether you’re asking the right question in the first place? Yes is the common thread running through the stories of dozens of game-changing innovators.

Why was Apple’s tablet the first to succeed in the marketplace? The iPad was launched in 2010, but tablet-size computers had been around since the early 2000s. Why was Jobs the one to make them a success? Isn’t this an example of the power of asking the right question in the first place?

Albert Einstein attributed much of his success to his focus on first asking the right question. He famously put it this way: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Einstein was clearly trying to tell us how crucial it is to get the question right in the first place.

So how exactly do you do that? How do you figure out if you’ve asked the right question in the first place?

Einstein’s answer is clear: it’s not easy. Take the time to do it right. And take heart also by realizing that your education probably didn’t teach you much about asking questions – most of your education was about giving answers to someone else’s questions.

MacBook with Several Question Mark KeysHere’s a tip: find that key on your keyboard with the question mark. Make it your new favorite key. Start using it more often. Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein would say it’s likely your first step to finding the new solution you’re looking for.

Daniel Gogek

(Next post on Monday … till then, D.G.)