The Irreplaceable Steve Jobs

This past February President Obama hosted a dinner of tech CEOs, including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Supposedly, during this dinner, Ellison announced to President Obama that all of the CEOs at the table were replaceable, with one exception: Steve Jobs.

More recently, ever since Jobs announced his departure for Apple last month, innovation in general and Steve Jobs specifically has become a hot topic. What makes someone a brilliant innovator? Was Steve Jobs the tech world’s Mozart, existing due to the perfect combination of personality quirks developed from a young age, never to be replaced? Or did he study, grow, and develop into a brilliant innovator? (the Beethoven of the tech world?)

By looking at Steve Jobs’ story, we can begin to learn whether creative genius is a personality trait or a learned attribute.

Jobs First Job

When Steve Jobs was 14 or 15 years old, he frequently attended lectures at Hewlett Packard. After one lecture he stayed behind to ask a question. Although asking questions of the lecturer was not an odd thing to do, Jobs’ question was an odd one. He asked the speaker – William Hewlett, president of HP – for some computer parts. Jobs needed them for a class project. Hewlett was not offended; instead he offered Jobs a summer internship.

Though there is no way to compare what Steve Jobs learned interning versus what he might have in a school setting, he displayed personality traits that show his innovative streak was already developed. For example, the determination he showed as a student approaching the president of HP. This determination– sometimes appearing as stubbornness or an insane perfectionist drive – continued through his work at Apple years later.

Focus, Determination, and Innovation

In addition to being doggedly determined, Jobs had the capacity for intense focus, devoting his determination to only one project at a time For example, when Jobs returned to Apple he famously terminated several projects, in order to focus the company’s energy on just one thing: returning to profitability.

While Jobs’ ability to focus may have been innate, he honed such skills through an unexpected source: Buddhism. Some well known quotes and stories can be connected to his belief in Buddhism, including a quote from his 1997 keynote, when Apple and Microsoft joined in a (very unpopular) partnership. “We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.”

CEOs tend to build their company’s core values around their own values and in this Jobs was no exception. One of Jobs’ core values was secrecy, which is clearly reflected in the “cult of secrecy” at Apple. We live in a time of social media and constant communication, yet the “cult of secrecy” is at odds with these social norms. As a result, Apple comes across as mysterious, secretive, and by result, a step ahead of the curb. By maintaining secrecy, Jobs maintained control over Apple’s marketing. Yet again, we see an example of Steve Jobs choosing a nontraditional method, and succeeding where more traditional businesses have failed.

Connecting the Dots

Although Steve Jobs was clearly an intelligent and inquisitive person, he falls firmly into a category of people born with creative ability. And though he built upon his creative genius through experience, it was not through formal education. To quote the man himself: “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.” Steve Jobs had many, many dots.