We all recognize Steve Jobs as a genius. As I’ve been reading (technically listening) to the biography on my commute, I’ve been struck by so many characteristics of this guru of modern technology.
Through the almost two decades I’ve been in the professional workforce, I’ve collected what’s considered business practice and wisdom to function in the workplace. What amazes me is just how much of that knowledge I’ve learned is basically bullshit to Steve Jobs. Is it because he was a genius? Is it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. Jobs was born a dozen years before me and on the opposite coast. While I’m not implying I stack up to this man at all, I wonder if I’d been born 12 years earlier and had gone with my own instinctual approaches rather than adopting the business wisdom.
Which brings me to his first big difference…
Counter-Culture vs. Corporate Culture
I’m only up to 1985, just after the launch of the Macintosh. Steve Jobs is a millionaire, Apple is worth a billion dollars and the company is just now deciding what it’s going to be as it’s entering adolescence. At the helm of much of the company, Jobs doesn’t follow business principals, instead quoting Bob Dylan and seeking inspiration in art. He doesn’t follow market research. He isn’t about focus groups or three-piece suits.
His meetings are usually him barefoot in the lotus position at the front of the room picking at his toes. Fuck an agenda. Organization, if you can call it that, is free-flowing with ideas taking the lead.
Jobs’ guiding principal is his gut, letting the universe set the destiny.
This is something with which I am familiar — at least, in my own way. When I came up with the idea that would become the Rhino and Zoo challenges, with wild animals living on carpet, I got lucky. The economy sat in the shitter and company salespeople along with retailers were so demoralized, a kind of resignation permeated the corporate headquarters. No one seriously thought it would work so they let me have at it with the thought I’d just be wasting a little money and it would be done in less than a month.
Instead, it kicked ass.
Some people never got over that success. The biggest mistake proved to be letting the public at large know — through the media — the idea and execution happened to be mine. Lauds and congratulations and praised poured in from the outside.
Inside my department happened to be a different story. For a while. many colleagues universally hated me. Unlike Jobs, I hadn’t learned to deal with the hate. Unlike Jobs, I had bosses to make happy and colleagues who wielded plenty of power to destroy my confidence and career. They did. Or at least, they tried.
Expect Perfection vs. Accept Good Enough
I began my career a journalist and, through the years, have moved to where I stand now — a marketing professional with particular strength integrating digital into traditional. Throughout the years, I’ve been the worker the boss comes to because I will “get things done.” Of course, the deadline mentality permeates my tenure, as one who must get things done by a certain time.
But I have never been one just to get things done. I expect things done well. Whether it’s my own tasks or others, I have expected a level of performance that it seems few measure up.
For Jobs, he divided people into “A workers” and “shitheads”; work was either “brilliant” or “shit.” No gray space divided the two extremes.
I acknowledge a gray space, but not 50 shades of gray. People break down into three groups for me: A pivot player, a position player and a bench-warmer. The pivot player is someone I can put anywhere and expect them to perform. A position player can only kick ass in a select few positions. A bench-warmer is someone I can’t fire, layoff or transfer so I just need to find them some busy work.
The problem is today’s workforce doesn’t allow a manger to play his team in this manner.Efforts to equalize the workplace means handicapping the pivot players and elevating everyone else. Today’s workplace rewards mediocrity and those who don’t take risks and don’t make the big plays. To continue the game analogy, don’t try for the big score, just move the ball and look like you’re busy.
I really struggle with this. For me, I love to be creative. It’s built in. I want to take a risk. I’m driven to grow and strive for perfection. But at every job — even when deadlines and budgets aren’t threatened — I’m told to just get it done so it’s “good enough.”
An agency liaison was complaining to my boss at a former company. Some junior-level designer was creating a “holiday” greeting for the front of the website and had picked a generic winter scene as the main art. To me, the landscape piece looked dreary with all the trees at a distance. After getting the piece for approval at home that evening, I went online to the stock art website and found a more fitting piece with more cheerful colors and a single tree in the foreground to bring more focus. I sent it back about an hour later and told the designer to use my art selection instead.
“It’s just a picture of some fucking evergreens,” my boss scolded me the next afternoon. “I don’t see why you had to change it.”
“Don’t you think my selection looks better?” I challenged.
“Yours looks more Christmas-y,” he said. “But what does it matter? It will be down in a few weeks!”
“I think the details matter,” I said.
“Don’t worry about the details,” he said. “Just get your work done.”
“I did,” I responded. “And I didn’t delay anything.”
Ultimately, the agency got the boot, but not before that liaison first accused me (and a couple of my colleagues) of being mentally unbalanced and too picky. The liaison was fired in an effort to save the account, but it didn’t work. And I tried a couple of more agencies out before finding one that meshed with my need for perfection and the ambition to kick ass.
Emotional vs. Stoic
My instincts and drive for perfection might be characteristics business professionals can endure. But this last one, they cannot. Since entering the career world with my first job at a drug store, I have been criticized for this one and, no matter how I try, this bit of my nature is much too instinctual and I cannot stop it, I cannot resist it and it never changes.
I am an emotional creature.
I do not hide how I feel. I cannot be stone-faced and pretend as if I am not reacting. While I have learned to better control my reactions, my “expressive face” gets me in trouble. People know if I like or dislike. And, like Jobs, I do not suffer or indulge fools.
One colleague accused me of being more emotional than his wife. The comment didn’t particularly bother me, although his use of it was meant to distract the group in the meeting from the fact he attempted to lie to the non-technically astute in the room and I’d chosen to confront him. I’d been neither delicate nor tactful. I’d simply said, “You know what you’re saying isn’t true. You’re lying to everyone in this room and getting away with it because you’re using a lot of technical terms that mean almost nothing. I understand exactly what you’re trying to do, which is screw this company by forcing the website onto a platform that won’t work for what we need.”
I did not think I’d attacked him personally, but he had. So he lashed out. When we were alone, later, he told me exactly how he felt about me. But in the room with others looking on, he couldn’t call me the word he was really thinking. So he called me emotional.
In the book, Jobs cries. He cries a lot. When I was 16, I cried at my job. And that would not be the last time. However, I have managed to keep it a little better under control.
I am passionate and my expressive face along with my animated hands sometimes really get going. One boss, who bullied me for a while, actually encouraged me to sit on my hands.
What to Do?
What should I do? Should I follow my instincts, as Steve Jobs did? He did. And we all know where it got him.
For the last two decades, I’ve been following the advice of all these bosses who tell me to resist my inner Steve Jobs. And I’m still in lower middle management and I’m not really excelling. I’m languishing in a limbo where the incompetent bully me into mediocrity and silence.
Should I embrace my inner Steve Jobs?