When you look at Steve Jobs’s life, what is it that inspires you?
In his documentary Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine, which hits theaters today, director Alex Gibney takes a holistic view of the late Apple founder. Inspired by the intense global, public mourning after his passing from cancer in October 2011, the movie looks at who it was that inspired such an outpouring of grief. While Gibney praises Jobs’ vision and marketing skills, he also criticizes a man who could rightly be described as brutal.
The film is objective, and in showing both sides of Jobs, it forces us to take a look at ourselves and answer nuanced questions about how we value products and the people behind them. Leaving the audience with questions is the mark of a good film, Gibney explained during a breakfast interview with reporters. “I want to create a space where people can come to it and engage. I went out of the way not to try and vilify anybody at Apple who was working there but to try to point some things out,” he says. “ A good film raises questions. Institutions don’t want you to reflect. They don’t want you to consider. They just want you to believe.”
Though Jobs often mentions values, he never specifically states what exactly he believes his values are. Although he was drawn to the Eastern philosophy of Buddhism -- his connection to Japan and Japanese culture is an aspect of his life the film discusses throughout -- he cherry-picked the aspects that he incorporated into his life. Laser focus? Check. Forgiveness? Not so much.
Similarly, as Jobs becomes increasingly deified and canonized in Silicon Valley and around the world (two blockbusters soon entering theaters might speed up that process), it would be wise to pick and choose which qualities of his to emulate and which to diverge from. Perhaps this list will help.
What to keep
1. An appreciation of aesthetics and hunger for improvement
Jobs created products that -- unlike their clunky, cold predecessors -- were designed to be physically appealing. The bright colors of iPods and the sleek designs of MacBooks have been described as “gorgeous,” and for good reason: the products look cool, which makes people want to buy them.
Jobs also never stopped thinking about how to make products better. His desire for perfection could be maddening to those around him, but it was also responsible for a steady stream of upgrades and innovations.
Think about how your product looks in its packaging on a crowded shelf space. If it doesn’t look attractive and alluring, it won’t sell. And remember -- even if you do have a winning product, don’t stop thinking about the next one.
2. Sales and marketing skills
As Gibney puts it, “Steve Jobs was a genius at making us want stuff. He could sell ice to the eskimos. He was the greatest salesman ever.” The movie shows Jobs’s evolution as a performer, from the first presentation he gave to his final presentation where he unveiled the iPad. In earlier presentations, his movements are stilted and halting, but by the end he’s relaxed in a chair while he casually chats with the audience, asking them, “Isn’t this cool?” To be successful, you need to be able to sell your product. In marketing the machines, there was a sense of identity attached to them. “He had an understanding that machines could be more than a tool,” Gibney says. “The iPod was the best one because... it was an extension of you.”
3. An understanding of the importance of branding
When IBM was the top dog in the tech industry, Apple marketed itself as the rebel in a sea of corporate drones. Their slogan was “Think Different.” Early commercials had the actor Justin Long in jeans and a t-shirt juxtaposed with an older man with glasses in a suit. The branding worked. Gibney admits via voiceover in the film that he’s an iPhone user. “I felt that effect, like I was sticking it to the man when i gave up my PC and started using Apple products,” he later said. Even now, when Apple dominates the market in the U.S., they brand themselves as counterculture.
Jobs created a brand for himself as well. His black turtleneck was a staple long before Zuckerberg’s hooded sweatshirt. He controlled his brand through the media -- only granting interviews to journalists he approved of, under the terms he wanted at the times he chose. He crafted his image, and the image of his company, very carefully. He did it so well that this image endures even when the facts dispute it. Branding is vital; it’s a skill that all entrepreneurs need to cultivate.
What to leave
1. Avoiding responsibility
It’s common knowledge that Jobs initially denied fathering his oldest child, Lisa (though he did name a computer model after her and later accepted paternity). Later, he avoided responsibility when the Securities Exchange Commission questioned his involvement with the policy of backdating stock options. Other executives fell on their swords while Jobs denied having any idea that this was happening. If you’re leading a company, lead. Step up. Take responsibility for what happens on your watch, under your leadership.
2. An ever-growing ego
The SEC investigation was not the only time when Jobs presumed himself to be above the law. Through a loophole in California’s DMV system, he never put a license plate on his car, and had a habit of parking in designated handicapped parking spaces. Beyond that, Gibney explains, there was the story of a private jet Jobs wanted. “He wanted a jet and the idea was that the company said, ‘We’ll buy a jet for the company, and it’ll be for your exclusive use,’ but that wasn’t enough emotionally,” he says. “[He thought] they should buy it for him even though it cost shareholders an extra $40 million in taxes to do that.” It’s nice to be shown appreciation for the work you do, but if you have to demand it of your board of directors -- and if the gesture is more important than what’s best for the company -- that’s a problem. You should never think of yourself as bigger than the business.
3. A lack of empathy
In the film, Jobs is described as having the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy. Business can be cutthroat and competition can be fierce. We often talk about work in terms used for war, like strategy and takeovers. Still, there is room in business for kindness. Throughout his life, even before he founded Apple with Steve Wozniak, Jobs showed himself as ruthless. When he and Wozniak collaborated to build a game for the video-game company Atari, Jobs lied to his friend about how much they’d been paid for their efforts. He told Wozniak, his good friend ever since high school, that the company cut them a check for $700 when the real amount was $7,000. He gave Wozniak his half of the fake amount and Wozniak only learned the truth later, when an Atari employee mentioned it. This was not an isolated incident of selfishness. By all means, work hard and hold people to high standards. In doing so, however, remember to be human.