The Patience of Jobs - The Objective Standard

In 1997, John Lilly went to hear Steve Jobs speak in Building 4 of Apple’s headquarters, taking a seat in the auditorium among many of his colleagues.

“It was a tough time at Apple,” he remembers. “[W]e were trading below book value on the market—our enterprise value was actually less than our cash on hand. And the rumors were everywhere that we were going to be acquired.”1

But Jobs seemed excited. He told the employees gathered there that they were going to turn around the company. He told them why he thought the company “sucked” and why in the future it would be great. Then someone asked about Michael Dell’s suggestion that Apple shut down and return its cash to shareholders. “Fuck Michael Dell,” replied Jobs. Lilly was flabbergasted. Jobs continued: “If you want to make Apple great again, let’s get going. If not, get the hell out.”2

While Jobs was alive, few people thought of him as a patient man. Indeed, his own biographer concluded that “patience was never one of his virtues,” and there were understandable grounds for this view.3

Lilly recalls, for example, that soon after Jobs returned to Apple he made clear that he would not put up with any employee who was not with him and his vision for the company.

One of the struggles we were going through when he came back was that Apple was about the leakiest organization in history—it had gotten so bad that people were cavalier about it.

In the face of all those leaks, I remember the first all-company email that Steve sent around after becoming interim CEO . . . [H]e talked in it about how Apple would release a few things in the coming week, and a desire to tighten up communications so that employees could know more about what was going on—and how that required respect for confidentiality.

That mail was sent on a Thursday; I remember all of us getting to work on Monday morning and reading mail from Fred Anderson, our then-CFO, who said basically: “Steve sent [an email] last week, he told you not to leak, we were tracking everyone’s mail, and [four] people sent the details to outsiders. They’ve all been terminated and are no longer with the company.”4

This was just a single instance of Jobs showing an “intolerance or irritability with anything that impedes or delays”—the dictionary definition of impatience. But there were countless others, and although Jobs’s intolerance may have shocked employees new to Apple, it didn’t surprise those who remembered how Jobs had acted in earlier years.5

Back then, Jobs was also famously unwilling to put up with anyone who was not actively adding to the creation of products he envisioned and wanted to use. Then, too, he didn’t want to waste his time on anything that was of secondary importance to him—and he didn’t want people on his payroll wasting their time on such things either.

In 1981, for example, when Jobs was working on a new computer to be called the Macintosh, he appeared at the cubicle of Andy Hertzfeld, a young engineer then writing code for the Apple II computer. “Are you any good?,” he asked Hertzfeld. “We only want really good people working on the Mac, and I’m not sure you’re good enough.” Hertzfeld replied that he thought he was good enough, and Jobs left. Later that night, he came back. “I’ve got good news for you,” he said, “you’re working on the Mac team now. Come with me.”

Hertzfeld was happy to hear about the transfer, but he explained that he needed a couple of days to finish the work he was doing for the Apple II. Jobs said, “You’re wasting your time with that! Who cares about the Apple II? The Apple II will be dead in a few years. The Macintosh is the future of Apple and you’re going to start on it now!” Jobs yanked out the power cord to Hertzfeld’s computer, causing everything he was working on to vanish. He then picked up the unit and walked out, telling Hertzfeld to follow. They got into Jobs’s Mercedes, rode to the Macintosh offices, and walked to a desk where Jobs set down the computer. “Here’s your new desk,” he said. “Welcome to the Mac team!”6

Over the years, Hertzfeld and the Mac team—and then all of Apple—would experience countless instances of this side of Jobs.

Bill Atkinson, a programmer for Apple, shared a story regarding Jobs’s passion for smooth scrolling and cursor movement, which, at the time of the first Macintosh, didn’t exist. Jobs wanted documents to flow smoothly as you scrolled through them, rather than lurch up or down. “He was adamant that everything on the interface had a good feeling to the user,” and he wanted a mouse that could move the cursor in any direction, not just up and down and left and right.

One evening, over dinner, Atkinson informed Jobs that the engineer working on the mouse considered such smooth movements impossible. The next day Atkinson arrived at work to find that Jobs had fired the engineer and replaced him with a new one. Upon meeting the new engineer, Atkinson recalls that his first words were, “I can build the mouse.”7

Through such vision-driven and decisive actions, Jobs formed a legendary “A-Team” that would gain Apple legions of customers and ardent fans by creating the Mac and other beautiful, easy-to-use products.

At the same time, those who left or were fired from Apple, as well as those who stayed with the company, formed a near-universal view of Jobs. They said he was hard to work with, impatient with employees, unyielding in his standards, and tactless in communication—all of which was true. Jobs had a clear view of the kind of products he wanted to create. He wanted them to be elegantly designed and easy to use, and he had no tolerance for anyone who was not fully committed to those goals. He had no patience for anything that didn’t meet his standards of effort, commitment, and excellence. And he never sugarcoated his views or wasted time trying to be conciliatory. If anyone came to Apple expecting otherwise, they wouldn’t last long.

So, in a certain respect, Jobs earned his reputation for being impatient. In another and more crucial respect, however, Jobs may have been the most patient man who ever lived.

Just as he had zero patience for anything that didn’t advance the creation of outstanding products, so he had seemingly infinite patience for anything he thought would lead to the “insanely great” products he dreamed of. In an interview with Wired magazine, Jobs said: “To [do] something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”8

Jobs did. In the case of design—arguably the strongest of Apple’s many strengths—Jobs expended an incredible amount of time and energy paying careful attention to the usability and construction of consumer products. An anecdote from Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs shows how much he cared about the products he used, and how much he thought about design.

Jobs had never furnished his Woodside home beyond a few bare essentials. . . . He wanted around him only things that he could admire, and that made it hard to simply go out and buy a lot of furniture. Now that he was living in a normal neighborhood home with a wife and soon a child, he had to make some concessions to necessity. But it was hard. They got beds, dressers, and a music system for the living room, but items like sofas took longer. “We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years,” recalled Laurene [his wife]. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’” Buying appliances was also a philosophical task, not just an impulse purchase.9

This is how Jobs approached products in general: He didn’t just use and appreciate them; from the radios and calculators designed by Dieter Rams to a washer and dryer designed by the German company, Miele, Jobs patiently examined and evaluated products, always noting the good, the bad, and the reasons.10

Moreover, when it came to working on his own products, Jobs’s patience—his willingness to continue working carefully toward a goal despite challenges or setbacks—was off the chart. He would redo designs for title bars twenty times; he’d call for redesigns of product boxes fifty times; he’d sift through two thousand shades of beige to find the one that suited his vision for the casing of a particular computer.11 Often, Jobs’s insistence on taking the time and exerting the effort to make things exactly the way he envisioned them went to almost unbelievable extremes. As Isaacson tells it:

On many of his projects, such as the first Toy Story and the Apple store, Jobs pressed “pause” as they neared completion and decided to make major revisions. That happened with the design of the iPhone as well. The initial design had the glass screen set into an aluminum cage. One Monday morning, Jobs went to see [Jonathan] Ive. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he said, “because I realized that I just don’t love it.” It was the most important product he had made since the first Macintosh, and it just didn’t look right to him. Ive [the designer of many Apple products] . . . instantly realized that Jobs was right. “I remember feeling absolutely embarrassed that he had to make the observation."

The problem was that the iPhone should have been all about the display, but in their current design the case competed with the display instead of getting out of the way. The whole device felt too masculine, task-driven, efficient. “Guys, you’ve killed yourselves over this design for the last nine months, but you’re going to change it,” Jobs told Ive’s team. “We’re all going to have to work nights and weekends, and if you want we can hand out some guns so you can kill us now.” Instead of balking, the team agreed. “It was one of my proudest moments at Apple,” Jobs recalled.

The new design ended up with just a thin stainless steel bezel that allowed the gorilla glass display to go right to the edge. Every part of the device seemed to defer to the screen. The new look was austere, yet also friendly. You could fondle it. It meant they had to redo the circuit boards, antenna, and processor placement inside, but Jobs ordered the change. “Other companies may have shipped,” said [a team member], “but we pressed the reset button and started over.”12

Was Steve Jobs an impatient man? Hardly. He had practically unlimited patience—but patience of a very specific kind. He had patience for what he held important and only for what he held important. And, combined with his other virtues, this patience was essential to his and Apple’s success.

Endnotes

1 http://john.jubjubs.net/2011/10/09/steve-jobs/.

2 http://john.jubjubs.net/2011/10/09/steve-jobs/.

3 Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 32.

4 http://john.jubjubs.net/2011/10/09/steve-jobs/.

5 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/impatience.

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6 Isaacson, Steve Jobs, pp. 113–14.

7 Isaacson, Steve Jobs, pp. 100–101.

8 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.02/jobs_pr.html.

9 Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p. 276.

10 http://gizmodo.com/343641/1960s-braun-products-hold-the-secrets-to-apples-future; http://www.com/wired/archive/4.02/jobs_pr.html.

11 Isaacson, Steve Jobs, pp. 131, 134, 83.

12 Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p. 472.

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