Tag: Steve Jobs

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Doers and thinkers from Shakespeare to Jobs, liberally “stole” inspiration from the doers and thinkers who came before. Here’s how to do it right.

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“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development. It doesn’t make what you do less valuable. Embrace it.

Everyone gets a lift up

Ironically, Newton’s turn of phrase wasn’t even entirely his own. The phrase can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the author John of Salisbury wrote that philosopher Bernard of Chartres compared people to dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants and said that “we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

Mary Shelley put it this way in the nineteenth century, in a preface for Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”

There are giants in every field. Don’t be intimidated by them. They offer an exciting perspective. As the film director Jim Jarmusch advised, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”

That might sound demoralizing. Some might think, “My song, my book, my blog post, my startup, my app, my creation—surely they are original? Surely no one has done this before!” But that’s likely not the case. It’s also not a bad thing. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson states in his TED Talk: “Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness—it’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.”

There lies the important fact. Standing on the shoulders of giants enables us to see further, not merely as far as before. When we build upon prior work, we often improve upon it and take humanity in new directions. However original your work seems to be, the influences are there—they might just be uncredited or not obvious. As we know from social proof, copying is a natural human tendency. It’s how we learn and figure out how to behave.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb describes the type of antifragile inventions and ideas that have lasted throughout history. He describes himself heading to a restaurant (the likes of which have been around for at least 2,500 years), in shoes similar to those worn at least 5,300 years ago, to use silverware designed by the Mesopotamians. During the evening, he drinks wine based on a 6,000-year-old recipe, from glasses invented 2,900 years ago, followed by cheese unchanged through the centuries. The dinner is prepared with one of our oldest tools, fire, and using utensils much like those the Romans developed.

Much about our societies and cultures has undeniably changed and continues to change at an ever-faster rate. But we continue to stand on the shoulders of those who came before in our everyday life, using their inventions and ideas, and sometimes building upon them.

Not invented here syndrome

When we discredit what came before or try to reinvent the wheel or refuse to learn from history, we hold ourselves back. After all, many of the best ideas are the oldest. “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is a term for situations when we avoid using ideas, products, or data created by someone else, preferring instead to develop our own (even if it is more expensive, time-consuming, and of lower quality.)

The syndrome can also manifest as reluctance to outsource or delegate work. People might think their output is intrinsically better if they do it themselves, becoming overconfident in their own abilities. After all, who likes getting told what to do, even by someone who knows better? Who wouldn’t want to be known as the genius who (re)invented the wheel?

Developing a new solution for a problem is more exciting than using someone else’s ideas. But new solutions, in turn, create new problems. Some people joke that, for example, the largest Silicon Valley companies are in fact just impromptu incubators for people who will eventually set up their own business, firm in the belief that what they create themselves will be better.

The syndrome is also a case of the sunk cost fallacy. If a company has spent a lot of time and money getting a square wheel to work, they may be resistant to buying the round ones that someone else comes out with. The opportunity costs can be tremendous. Not Invented Here Syndrome detracts from an organization or individual’s core competency, and results in wasting time and talent on what are ultimately distractions. Better to use someone else’s idea and be a giant for someone else.

Why Steve Jobs stole his ideas

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” 

— Steve Jobs

In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman trace the path that led to the creation of the iPhone and track down the giants upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs perched. We often hail Jobs as a revolutionary figure who changed how we use technology. Few who were around in 2007 could have failed to notice the buzz created by the release of the iPhone. It seemed so new, a total departure from anything that had come before. The truth is a little messier.

The first touchscreen came about almost half a century before the iPhone, developed by E.A. Johnson for air traffic control. Other engineers built upon his work and developed usable models, filing a patent in 1975. Around the same time, the University of Illinois was developing touchscreen terminals for students. Prior to touchscreens, light pens used similar technology. The first commercial touchscreen computer came out in 1983, soon followed by graphics boards, tablets, watches, and video game consoles. Casio released a touchscreen pocket computer in 1987 (remember, this is still a full twenty years before the iPhone.)

However, early touchscreen devices were frustrating to use, with very limited functionality, often short battery lives, and minimal use cases for the average person. As touchscreen devices developed in complexity and usability, they laid down the groundwork for the iPhone.

Likewise, the iPod built upon the work of Kane Kramer, who took inspiration from the Sony Walkman. Kramer designed a small portable music player in the 1970s. The IXI, as he called it, looked similar to the iPod but arrived too early for a market to exist, and Kramer lacked the marketing skills to create one. When pitching to investors, Kramer described the potential for immediate delivery, digital inventory, taped live performances, back catalog availability, and the promotion of new artists and microtransactions. Sound familiar?

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of the many unseen engineers, students, and scientists who worked for decades to build the technology he drew upon. Although Apple has a long history of merciless lawsuits against those they consider to have stolen their ideas, many were not truly their own in the first place. Brandt and Eagleman conclude that “human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries.”

How Shakespeare got his ideas

Nothing will come of nothing.”  

— William Shakespeare, King Lear

Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays draw heavily upon prior works—so much so that some question whether he would have survived today’s copyright laws.

Hamlet took inspiration from Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work on Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus, consisting of sixteen Latin books. Although it is doubtful whether Shakespeare had access to the original text, scholars find the parallels undeniable and believe he may have read another play based on it, from which he drew inspiration. In particular, the accounts of the plight of Prince Amleth (which has the same letters as Hamlet) involves similar events.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a co-authored account of British history from the late sixteenth century, tells stories that mimic the plot of Macbeth, including the three witches. Holinshed’s Chronicles itself was a mélange of earlier texts, which transferred their biases and fabrications to Shakespeare. It also likely inspired King Lear.

Parts of Antony and Cleopatra are copied verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Anthony. Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was an undisguised template for Romeo and Juliet. Once again, there are more giants behind the scenes—Brooke copied a 1559 poem by Pierre Boaistuau, who in turn drew from a 1554 story by Matteo Bandello, who in turn drew inspiration from a 1530 work by Luigi da Porto. The list continues, with Plutarch, Chaucer, and the Bible acting as inspirations for many major literary, theatrical, and cultural works.

Yet what Shakespeare did with the works he sometimes copied, sometimes learned from, is remarkable. Take a look at any of the original texts and, despite the mimicry, you will find that they cannot compare to his plays. Many of the originals were dry, unengaging, and lacking any sort of poetic language. J.J. Munro wrote in 1908 that The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet “meanders on like a listless stream in a strange and impossible land; Shakespeare’s sweeps on like a broad and rushing river, singing and foaming, flashing in sunlight and darkening in cloud, carrying all things irresistibly to where it plunges over the precipice into a waste of waters below.”

Despite bordering on plagiarism at times, he overhauled the stories with an exceptional use of the English language, bringing drama and emotion to dreary chronicles or poems. He had a keen sense for the changes required to restructure plots, creating suspense and intensity in their stories. Shakespeare saw far further than those who wrote before him, and with their help, he ushered in a new era of the English language.

Of course, it’s not just Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare who found a (sometimes willing, sometimes not) shoulder to stand upon. Facebook is presumed to have built upon Friendster. Cormac McCarthy’s books often replicate older history texts, with one character coming straight from Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confessions. John Lennon borrowed from diverse musicians, once writing in a letter to the New York Times that though the Beatles copied black musicians, “it wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.”

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem points to many other instances of influences in classic works. In 1916, journalist Heinz von Lichberg published a story of a man who falls in love with his landlady’s daughter and begins a love affair, culminating in her death and his lasting loneliness. The title? Lolita. It’s hard to question that Nabokov must have read it, but aside from the plot and name, the style of language in his version is absent from the original.

The list continues. The point is not to be flippant about plagiarism but to cultivate sensitivity to the elements of value in a previous work, as well as the ability to build upon those elements. If we restrict the flow of ideas, everyone loses out.

The adjacent possible

What’s this about? Why can’t people come up with their own ideas? Why do so many people come up with a brilliant idea but never profit from it? The answer lies in what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Quite simply, each new innovation or idea opens up the possibility of additional innovations and ideas. At any time, there are limits to what is possible, yet those limits are constantly expanding.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson compares this process to being in a house where opening a door creates new rooms. Each time we open the door to a new room, new doors appear and the house grows. Johnson compares it to the formation of life, beginning with basic fatty acids. The first fatty acids to form were not capable of turning into living creatures. When they self-organized into spheres, the groundwork formed for cell membranes, and a new door opened to genetic codes, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. When dinosaurs evolved a new bone that meant they had more manual dexterity, they opened a new door to flight. When our distant ancestors evolved opposable thumbs, dozens of new doors opened to the use of tools, writing, and warfare. According to Johnson, the history of innovation has been about exploring new wings of the adjacent possible and expanding what we are capable of.

A new idea—like those of Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare—is only possible because a previous giant opened a new door and made their work possible. They in turn opened new doors and expanded the realm of possibility. Technology, art, and other advances are only possible if someone else has laid the groundwork; nothing comes from nothing. Shakespeare could write his plays because other people had developed the structures and language that formed his tools. Newton could advance science because of the preliminary discoveries that others had made. Jobs built Apple out of the debris of many prior devices and technological advances.

The questions we all have to ask ourselves are these: What new doors can I open, based on the work of the giants that came before me? What opportunities can I spot that they couldn’t? Where can I take the adjacent possible? If you think all the good ideas have already been found, you are very wrong. Other people’s good ideas open new possibilities, rather than restricting them.

As time passes, the giants just keep getting taller and more willing to let us hop onto their shoulders. Their expertise is out there in books and blog posts, open-source software and TED talks, podcast interviews, and academic papers. Whatever we are trying to do, we have the option to find a suitable giant and see what can be learned from them. In the process, knowledge compounds, and everyone gets to see further as we open new doors to the adjacent possible.

The Importance of Working With “A” Players

Stop me if this sounds familiar. There is a person who toils alone for years in relative obscurity before finally cracking the code to become a hero. The myth of the lone genius. It’s the stuff of Disney movies.

Of course, we all have moments when we’re alone and something suddenly clicks. We’d do well to remember, though, that in those moments, we are not as independent as we like to think. The people we surround ourselves with matter.

In part, because we tell ourselves the story of the lone genius, we under-appreciate the role of a team. Sure, the individual matters, no doubt. However, the individual contributions are supercharged by the team around them.

We operate in a world where it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything great as an individual.  When you think about it, you’re the product of an education system, a healthcare system, luck, roads, the internet and so much more. You may be smart but you’re not self-made. And at work, most important achievements require a team of people working together.

The leader’s job is to get the team right. Getting the team right means that people are better as a group than as individuals. Now this is important.  Step back and think about that for a second — the right teams make every individual better than they would be on their own.

Another way to think about this is in terms of energy. If you have 12 people on a team and they each have 10 units of energy, you would expect to get 120 units of output. That’s what an average team will do. Worse teams will do worse. A great team will take the same inputs and get a non-linear outcome. The result won’t be 120; it’ll be 360.No matter where you’re going, great teams will get you there multiples faster than average teams.

Here is a quote by Steve Jobs on the importance of assembling “A” players.

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

Building a team is more complicated than collecting talent1. I once tried to solve a problem by putting a bunch of PhDs’ in a room. While comments like that sounded good and got me a lot of projects above my level, they were rarely effective at delivering actual results.

Statements like “let’s assemble a multidisciplinary team of incredible people” are gold in meetings if you work for an organization. These statements sound intelligent. They are hard to argue with. And, most importantly, they also have no accountability built in, and they are easy to wiggle out of. If things don’t work out, who can fault a plan that meant putting smart people in a room.

Well … I can. It’s a stupid plan.

The combination of individual intelligence does not make for group intelligence. Thinking about this in the context of the Jobs quote above, “A” players provide a lot more than raw intellectual horsepower. Among other things, they also bring drive, integrity, and an ability to make others better.  “A” players want to work with other “A” players. Accepting that statement doesn’t mean they’re all “the best”.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team.  The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

Footnotes
  • 1

    A play on a quote by Bill Belichick

Intuition vs. Rationality: Where One Stops the Other Starts

Here’s an interesting passage from Anne Lamott, found in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, that requires some consideration.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré said something adding to our understanding of the roles that both rationality and intuition play in discovery: “It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”

Furthering our understanding, I ran across a quote by Steve Jobs on the same topic: “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.” The source of that quote is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs:

The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic, it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

It’s not really acceptable to admit but most of the time we make our decisions on intuition, rationalizing them after the fact by cherry picking. (If you want to see what it looks like to make rational decisions and catalouge your data, try using our decision journal for a month.) Intuition can be thought of as subconscious pattern matching, honed over weeks, years, and decades. The more we are within our circle of competence the more likely our intuition proves correct.

The point isn’t choosing between cold rationality and intuition but rather understanding that each serves a purpose. If we let it, intuition can be an able guide but we must check it when the consequences of being wrong are high.

Footnotes

The Iconic Think Different Apple Commercial Narrated by Steve Jobs

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

— Steve Jobs, 1997

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creativity and to what extent attitude plays a role.

The most creative people I know are often the ones who have a hell-raiser trait in them, regardless of whether this comes from nature or nurture.

These are people who think different, feel different, behave different. These are the people who can’t easily fit into the square corporate box.

Organizations both value and despise them. They make people uncomfortable. They challenge thoughts, processes, and the status quo. They disrupt and dismiss. They push. They raise the bar for everyone else and they call people out. They’re not being difficult on purpose — they’re being themselves. They see things differently. And that comes with both opportunities and challenges.

Many people — especially those who are less secure about themselves — have a hard time working with people that push boundaries and challenge the way things are done. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want the bar raised. They don’t want to explain why something needs to stay the same. All of this, after all, is exhausting. It’s much easier to just ignore, dismiss, or add layers of management to dilute the impact these people can have.

The problem with that approach, however, is that you dilute what your organization is capable of. Embracing people who think differently is not a sign of weakness as a leader (and I’m not advocating for embracing everyone who thinks differently, there is some nuance here). Allowing yourself to hear the perspective of others who think differently is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

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Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Steve Jobs on Creativity. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

Steve Jobs on The Most Important thing. Life can be so much better once you understand this one simple fact.

Steve Jobs on Creativity

“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas.”
— Rosamund Harding

In a beautiful article for The Atlantic, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, writes:

[C]reative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. … Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.

The same point of view is offered by James Webb Young, who many years earlier, wrote:

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

A lot of creative luminaries think about creativity in the same way. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

In I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, editor George Beahm draws on more than 30 years of media coverage of Steve Jobs in order to find Jobs’ most thought-provoking insights on many aspects of life and creativity.

In one particularly notable excerpt Jobs says:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. 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. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

The more you learn about, the more you can connect things. This becomes an argument for a broad-based education. In Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to the class of Stanford, Jobs makes the case for learning things that, at the time, may not offer the most practical benefit. Over time, however, these things add up to give you a broader base of knowledge from which to connect ideas:

Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. 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. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.

While education is important for building up a repository for which you can connect things, it’s not enough. You need broad life experiences as well.

I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words is full of things that will make you think.

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

If you were to make a list of the best commencement addresses ever, you’d find this one from Steve Jobs up there with the likes of David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman, and Naval Adm. William H. McRaven.

[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. 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. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. 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. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

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.