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Big Ideas

Vision Without Obstruction: What We Learn From Steve Jobs

Self-doubt, short-term expectations, bureaucracy. How can we pursue bold ideas without letting these everyday obstacles get in the way?


In recent days, everyone has taken the news of Steve Jobs’ resignation and illness in different ways. For me, it has conjured up admiration and curiosity. More than anything else, I have always respected Jobs’ clarity. True, the man has always shunned the status quo, but I believe his rebel ways were only a consequence of his efforts to stay true to an original vision. Jobs didn’t “think different” just for the sake of it, he just refused to conform to traditional expectations and limitations.

Some say Jobs’ possessed a “reality distortion field.” I’d argue that it was, in fact, a sense of clarity so powerful that no obstacle could get in the way of creating perfect products.Apple did not invent the mp3 player, the tablet, or the smartphone. But while other companies made compromises and took shortcuts to get to market, Jobs had a knack for sticking with his vision of what a product could and should be. I can only imagine the constant stream of obstacles he faced as Apple began to execute these ideas:

  • Material shortages and cost limitations
  • Ensuring compatibility with previous software
  • Market research with conflicting messages
  • Pre-existing patents and features from competitors
  • Marketing and sales deadlines

It must have been so seductive to stray at any moment and compromise to get it done. As people around him said, “Let’s just let that go because [fill in the great excuse here],” Jobs always somehow stayed course.Perhaps the difference between Steve Jobs and the “visionaries” at other great companies was his ability to not only see what the future of technology could be, but to work toward that vision without obstruction.

Jobs had a knack for sticking with his vision of what a product could and should be.

Obstruction is all the stuff that gets in the way of making the best possible decisions. The drive toward a “better quarter” is a frequent obstruction for CEOs when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. A bullshit legal requirement for more explanation on a product’s packaging is an obstruction to a clear marketing strategy. The desire to shave four cents from the assembly of a product is an obstruction to building it the right way.Needless to say, it’s easy to lose grasp of a bold vision once the journey begins. Most leaders tack right and left as obstacles reveal themselves, and then they arrive at an entirely different destination. Jobs was different. He had a maniacal grasp of his vision and was unwilling to let other people — even his customers — shift him off-course.

Jobs never compromised and gave us what we wanted, he stayed true to his vision and gave us what we needed.

Most leaders tack right and left as obstacles reveal themselves, and then they arrive at an entirely different destination.

In addition to the external obstacles that obstruct vision, there are also internal obstacles. These are our demons — the self-doubt, the fear of failure, and the impulse to meet others’ short-term expectations at the expense of long-term possibilities. It turns out that Jobs had a mechanism to see beyond this sort of obstacle as well. In his now legendary Stanford graduation speech in June 2005, Jobs shared insight into his personal source of clarity, helping us to understand the spectacularly gutsy decisions he made time, and time again, throughout his career. Even if you’ve read it before, read it again:

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. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Indeed, there isn’t, and the only time we think otherwise is when this stark truth — that there is nothing to lose in staying true to what you envision — is obstructed by the froth of short-sighted hopes and fears.

***

The system in which we work is full of expectations cast upon us from our first breath. Every degree of success is accompanied by an equal dose of bureaucracy. Any early success that you may have only breeds higher expectations and a burden to deliver. This burden is a weight that often obstructs vision and sound judgment.Usually, it takes something extreme, even death itself, to look past obstructions and maintain clarity. Perhaps the legacy of Steve Jobs as a leader is a call for clarity. If only we could all pursue our own visions with a little less obstruction.

There are a lot of great ideas in this world, and the obstacles that get in the way are no excuse. Steve would never stand for it, and neither should we.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (82)
  • 21tigermike

    “Apple did not invent the mp3 player, the tablet, or the smartphone.”
    Apple reinvented them. Remember, Apple used to be called Apple Computer. Apple didn’t get into those markets because it made sense. Apple, a computer company, got into those markets because the current offerings (competitors) were so godawful, Steve et al couldn’t stand it any longer. 

    They got into those markets using computers to solve ‘analog’ problems, because it was the only way they could get the phone, musicplayer, tablet they wanted to use themselves! Same reason they started making computers. 

    In Steve’s own words, “If we could have gone down to the store and bought a computer [in the early days of Apple] we never would have started a company.”

    Like it or not, despite their phenomenal success, Steve Jobs and his buddies are the anti-corporates. Without them, we’re left with the mediocrity of Dell, HP, Gateway, and the monopolistic greed of Microsoft and Google. Going forward, it won’t be Steve’s perfectionism driving the industry, it will be the snail pace of innovation spurred by the almighty ‘market forces’ that push the industry (less and less, as we get more consolidation in a dying market).

  • Francis Vila

    For one Steve Jobs there a thousand Ayatollahs who drive themselves and the people around them to disaster because they march ahead with their grandiose vision without pausing to see they are heading straight into the nearest iceberg.

  • Jeff Goins

    I love how simple Apple’s products (seemingly) are. I believe that’s what makes them remarkable. It’s the mark a truly great, creative leader — the ability to over-simplify things so that they can be understood, executed, and shared.

  • not god

    We need another Steve – a genius that we can point to when our uninspired financial overlords just don’t. get. it.

  • Bauhous

    perfect products? Another fanboy heard from…

  • Jacques van Heerden

    Steve Jobs is definitely a man that will go down in history as someone with a understanding of how to turn a vision into reality. 

  • Enclave365

    I am a big fan of Apple also and did not know the quote from Steve … Inspires me, as an artist that is not running with the norm 🙂

  • Carl Sanders

    I liked the way we could send an email from the UK straight to his email address and get a reply years ago. We mentioned making computers bright colours for users of Macintosh, likely to be creatives,  because all computers at the time were the mundane grey or stone colour. As creative people we mentioned that we wanted bright exciting machines on our desk, not dull and boring. Hey presto, the iMacs! Thanks Steve!

  • Dean Kahremanis

    Outstanding article Scott – You described Steve Job’s character perfectly! Our inner obstacles are sometimes greater than our outer obstacles. A powerful vision ought to be clear, concise, and understood without explanation. Only then will vision continuously motivate to overcome challenges.

  • Mikew

    Never forget. Steve Jobs 8.24.11

    Fanboys will be Fanboys. Bro sued everyone on the market then stepped down. Some visionary he is.

  • Bob

    Okay,what’s next?

  • Matt

    “Like it or not, despite their phenomenal success, Steve Jobs and his buddies are the anti-corporates.”
    That doesn’t make any sense.  Apple are a massive corporation.  Apple have a clear corporate vision. They are called Apple Incorporated.

    We may well buy their products and services because they are excellent but please don’t start thinking that their business methods of cheap labour, patent buying, and an aggressive legal team are more noble than any other’s.

  • Walter Price

    >>Ensuring compatibility with previous software
    Not always the case. Mac OS 10.x was not exactly compatible with Mac OS 9.x. Intel based apps were not compatible with PowerPC.

    I believe Steve Jobs was just greedy in 80x and 90x where he could compete with Windows by making Macs more affordable. I guess he learned a lot when he was fired as the Apple’s CEO in 90x.

  • Tony

    Really? The guy regurgitates old ideas, wraps them in shiny plastic, dumbs down the operation so the masses can understand it, then implies that those that don’t buy in are social inadequate. “If you don’t have an iPhone well…”
     
    Could you have been any less objective?  

  • Rafael Macho

    I can’t deny that I am a big fan of Apple products. But I think the key to Apple success has been a mix of creativity and law enforcement. Everything that Apple does comes with patents, NDA, lawyers ready to bite. Sure it has help Apple fights again the Motorola, Google and Samsung. But if Apple was to start today in a garage, it wouldn’t have a chance to grow the way it used to. So for all the small entrepreneurs out there, whose only hope is to dream to get into an IPO or to be bought by a sleepy giant Microsoft or other. How much room is there for innovative ideas today?

  • Dynasty_four

    Very true. I think the time for making great innovations in the technology field is dwindling. There’s only so much you can do.

  • Martin

    I’m sure he will even create a bigger “Apple” with the stuff that is in your garage 😀

  • Jonathan

    Hey Rafael,

    Although I can sympathise with your point, I do think that true innovation has as much space as whatever has gone before. The reason being that although big corporations might try to stifle the chances of the smaller entreprenuer (not that they should) it inevitably leads them to blinkered vision and leaves them susceptible to being blindsided by a product or idea that they never saw coming.

  • Linkology

    Great post on Jobs.

  • cortana

    Apple started their company because there were no affordable computers on the market, that people could buy and use themselves. The inventor of the first PC, the Apple I, Steve Wozniak (Steve Jobs friend back then and co-founder of Apple) just wanted to invent and improve the products, he didn´t like the way the company was growing and how corporations work and do their management. He did the engeneering and Steve Jobs did the managing and “the talking”. Their products just got so big the company got huge and there will always be conflicts. Both Steves left at one point because of disagreements. So it does make sense in a way.

  • So long...

    Although I’m a graphic designer and Apple products are the big trend when it comes to people in my area I’ve never owned an Apple product and I probably never will. When I consider the purchase of a piece of hardware I’m completely indifferent to what it looks like, I just want to know what’s inside it. The way I see it Apple products are completely overpriced in relation to any Windows operating hardware. I look for work machines and performance, the looks are just a bonus. If we compare Mac OS with Windows I don’t see much benefits either, the Adobe Suite and the rest of the software I use run perfectly fine under Windows and I never experienced more than the occasional crash. In terms of smartphones Android is the real ground-breaking system since you get more functionalities than with the Iphone on a less than 200€ budget. Apple’s technical support, as far as I know, is unexistent, they simple offer to replace components at outrageous prices, nothing on an Apple product can be repaired because of the claustrophobic way they assemble it. With a custom assembled desktop tower I’m in control, I can easily remove my disk, my graphics board, whatever, and choose from an array of hundreds of products for the most competitive price/performance replacement. As for laptops I got the equivalent of a 1600€ Macbook Pro for 700€ (on which I can run MacOS, incidentally). Also Apple is a completely hostile company regarding to patents and they’ll hunt you down in court for any minor infringement, also they’re filing patents on completely stupid concepts these days like simple OS related operations. The only merit I can give to Steve Jobs (and mostly to those that work below him because one man, sorry to say, is only as good as the people he hires) was this clever marketing approach based solely on the hardware’s looks and plastering Apple products all over the media (television, movies, etc.) so that it became an object of desire for a still restrict (but growing) group of people that don’t really care about prospecting the market, reading reviews and finding the best suited equipment for them, they want all of those decisions made for them and wrapped inside a pretty package no matter the cost.

  • Seriously?

    What’s mediocre about developing products with the same specs as an Apple product for 1/3 of the price? Sorry to burst your bubble but the personal computer revolution started with Bill Gates (and his friend who no one ever heard about).

  • luke gustafson

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the article. Some comments in this thread claim that Steve regurgitated ideas, or had corporate power to push his concepts through, or that berating people to feel inadequate is the reason so many buy apple products. 

    I’m not going to argue because everybody is entitled to their opinion. I will instead thank you for saying that long term vision can win and is the right way to go. That regardless of obstacles, vision can beat fear, vision should beat short term gain and that vision from the heart will lead the way.  

    This is exactly what I needed to read at this juncture in my company… we are at the viability/proving stage. we are about to launch a vague beta for testing. we are sort of shaking in our boots that we haven’t done enough and that we should rush something, anything!  

    Instead we are going to let time do it’s work, we will fix as we go, we will keep long term in the fore of our minds, we will listen, we will be patient. We will think of Steve Jobs. 

    Thanks Scott.

    Sincerely, 

    Luke Gustafson 

    staracers.com

  • Brazilian

    Yes. Definitely.

  • Guest

    Objectivity doesn’t exist. And you just implied that “the masses” are beneath you.

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