Monday, December 05, 2011

The Curious Case of Steve Jobs: Intuition and the Entrepreneur

“Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

- Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement, 2005

Wow it’s been a long time since I’ve written an entry (the last once was written just before I sold my iPhone gaming company, Gameview Studios, to DeNA) in 2010. I’d like to re-start my blog with two topics that are dear and near to my heart: following your intuition and the death of Steve jobs.

Steve’s death on October 5, 2011 caused a literal outflowing of emotion, analysis and opining: hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages have been written in the last month alone since his death. And that’s not counting Walter Isaacson’s 600 plus page biography.

Some of these focused on his achievements at Apple and Pixar, some on his tumultuous personality, some on his “insanely great” products like the Mac and the iPhone, some on how he ran Apple after his comeback, some on the impact he’s had on (count them) at least five different industries, some comparing him to Walt Disney and Henry Ford combined.

So...what’s left to say?

For me one of the most inspiring (and overlooked) aspects of Jobs’ career and philosophy was his reliance on his own intuition even in the face of the “noise of others’ opinions”. I haven’t seen much written on it, so using his own words as much as possible, here goes:

Most writers about successful business persons like to try to reduce what they did to a set of pithy “principles” you can follow to be just “like Mike”. With Jobs, I think that’s pretty much impossible. It’s like asking for the “step-by-step formula” for how to “think different”! If it could be reduced to a formula…well you get the point.

Intuition vs. Analysis

Jobs attributed much of his success to his ability to follow his own “inner knowing”, even when analysts and the “experts” disagreed. He was quoted as saying he hated focus groups because consumers “don’t know what they want until we show it to them”. Instead, he insisted on having an “intuitive” feel for when a product was “just right” and when it felt “wrong”.

This is pretty much the opposite of what you will learn from business schools (even more progressive west coast ones like Stanford) about building products and companies. It’s even different from what most venture capitalists and startup gurus here in the valley will tell you - which is to analyze a market, make sure the analysis confirms that the market is “big enough”, then interview the people in that market to find out their needs. It’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest icons of Silicon Valley would disagree with the way business is being done here.

Tim Cook, who replaced Jobs as the CEO at Apple, talks about following his own intuition when he decided to join Apple after meeting with Jobs. “Engineers are taught to make a decision analytically but there are times when relying on gut or intuition are indispensable.”

Where did Jobs get this mindset from? A big part of his reliance on intuition vs. analysis came as a result of his own search for truth. When he was young, he dropped out of Reed College (again the opposite of what logic would tell you to do if you want to be a successful entrepreneur) and followed his own intuition down several notable paths.

The first path, his quest for enlightenment, led him first on a trip to India chasing some guru, and later transformed into his study of Zen meditation here in the Bay area. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, “ said Jobs. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.”

He concluded with: “Intuition is a very powerful thing.” (src: Isaacson's biography).

Continuing his search for enlightenment when he came back to the US in the 1970’s he experimented with Zen meditation (an interest he kept up for the rest of his life) and mind-altering drugs (which as far as I know, he did not keep up for the rest of his life). Now I can’t speak for LSD (since I’ve never taken it), but I can vouch that meditation can be indispensible for learning about different states of mind and teaching you how to follow your own intuition.

Steve Jobs said: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time, it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things- that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.”

According to his longtime friend, Daniel Kottke, who’d known him since his college days: “Steve is very much Zen. It was a deep influence. You see it in his whole approach of stark, minimalist aesthetics, intense focus.”

Zen influenced Steve Jobs in other ways too – including his appreciation of a minimalist ethic that rubbed off on his insistence that user interfaces and products be as simple as possible. When creating great products like the Macintosh and the original iPod, Jobs talked about having this intuitive knowing when something had met this ethic of simplicity and when it could be improved. Although he wasn't always right, he was right way more often than he was wrong.

Connecting the Dots: One thing leads to another

Of course, it’s not always easy to follow your intuition when it’s telling you something that’s different from what others tell you should “logically” be done. Jobs own life is a good example – ranging from his decision to drop out of Reed to what looked like a very poor investment decision to fund Pixar, a money-losing operation that he bought from George Lucas for $10 million in the eighties, and then continued to fund for years (to the tune of $50 million of his own personal money), until they came out with Toy Story in the nineties and became the landmark success story we know about today.

I think it only happens if you can have confidence in yourself and your own ability to find what’s right for you. Following your intuition often means follow your own path, even if you can’t see exactly where it’s taking you.

Jobs often gave an example from the time when he dropped out of college. He said that once he’d officially dropped out, he could take the classes that he “wanted to take” rather than the ones that “they were requiring him to take”, showing a streak of his habitual disrespect for authority.

He saw a flyers on campus for a calligraphy class, and decided to follow his intuition and take this class, where he learned about proportional fonts, serif vs. non-serif fonts. Jobs would say about this time: “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life.”

Later, when it came time to design the Mac, he insisted that there be “fonts” of different types, rather than the usual stale green fonts that were popular at the time. Again in his own words:

“And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”

This was perhaps the most important example of what Jobs referred to as “connecting the dots” – when something in your life unexpectedly connects to something at a far later date, but you are completely unaware of the influence it’ll have at the time.

I think that most successful entrepreneurs benefit from “connecting the dots” – bringing together seemingly unconnected experiences into a single whole that somehow is more than the sum of the parts. How do you know? You don’t – you have to have the courage though to follow your intuition.

I’ll end, as I began, with Steve Jobs in his own words from the now famous Stanford speech:

“Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

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Blogger Neelam Sundaram said...

Excellent post, Rizwan!

4:22 PM  
Blogger stacie28 said...

great post! I enjoyed reading it! I really admire entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Larry Page or Yuri Mintskovsky. They are good role models for future entrepreneurs!

6:48 AM  

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