Facebook filed to go public last Wednesday, and we are all awash in hagiographies to Zuckerberg, stories of the determined, bright young Harvard drop out who, through force of will, has revolutionized the internet and human relations. Like all invention myths, these stories leave out both the inevitability of the evolution of a facebook-like platform, and the unoriginality of the idea at the time of Facebook’s launch.
This meme is not new – we all know that invention is usually evolutionary, more like the aleatory, methodical process of natural selection than the “Eureka!” shouting epiphany of intelligent design (Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is insightful on this point). We exaggerate the impact of individual geniuses, without whom we like to think the world would be profoundly different, for two reasons, as far as I can tell: Because it makes for better stories, and because we want to elevate human agency, we want to believe in our individual power to bend the world with the force of our will.
We are not wrong, it’s an extraordinary time for innovation, and individuals can have profound impact. But at the same time I think wildly successful people have an obligation to say: “Yes I worked my tail off, and no, I am no dummy, but it’s also true that I got really really lucky.”
I have gotten lucky, and I am working hard to get luckier still. Clearly Success = some combination of hard work, intelligence (more the ability to learn incrementally from experience than some kind of mystical genius) and luck. The first two are requirements for admission, and you have to keep at it until you find the third. Older and wiser people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are more likely to acknowledge the role of luck in their success – both of then have spoken about it eloquently — and Malcolm Gladwell did a good job of describing the luck factor in Outliers. Bo Peabody came clean in his thoughtful book, Lucky or Smart. But it remains wildly under-recognized, in my opinion.
Why does this matter? It matters because if people think innovation happens because of the actions of Isolated Geniuses, they draw the wrong conclusions about their own potential and how innovation happens. It’s easy to draw the wrong lessons from hyperbolized success stories. You could conclude, for instance, that when brought into a new social media startup, you should stall, rip off the idea, and go it alone (Zuckerberg). Or that true visionaries scream at developers and designers, tell them their products are shit, and storm out of the room (Jobs). Needless to say there is much that we can learn from Jobs and Zuckerberg, two brilliant innovators — some if it is useful and broadly applicable, the rest historically specific and potentially misleading.
I am about half way through the Jobs biography (its been temporarily displaced by Thinking Fast and Slow due to my AMPs syndrome), and I think Isaacson deserves enormous credit for keeping the extraordinary story of Steve Jobs tethered to the ground. If there ever were a case that individuals can be overpowering forces on history, lead-weighted billiard balls that profoundly alter the picture, Jobs is right up there with Einstein and Hitler among the strongest cases. He achieved extraordinary success not once but thrice with Apple 1.0, Pixar, and Apple 2.0, and he was a wildly original rogue force.
The problem, however, with Jobs as an example, is that what has worked for Apple is very nearly the inverse of what works more broadly online. The idea of locking people in sealed chambers for years at a time to develop products incompatible with other standards, without any feedback from users, is pretty much the antithesis of the best way to navigate the emergent connected, social-media-accelerated world, in my opinion.
My guess is that if you were to plop Steve Jobs in various places and times in history – the precisely same Steve Jobs with his peculiar psychological blend of brilliance, iconoclasm, and a borderline sado-masochistic stinginess with warmth and affirmation (arbuably a result of his fraught relationship with having been put up for adoption, according to many of his intimates) – in 9 out of 10 cases he would not have been a business success. He would have been, as Steve himself said, a broke poet in Paris (a career path I think of warmly, by the way). It’s not easy to be successful in business if you are uncollaborative, egotistical, disinclined to give others credit, and very nearly completely blind to the obstacles. Indeed, you are highly likely to fail with that disposition, it’s a low probability approach, but if you succeed, you have a shot at doing so on a large scale, in a memorable way. And thank goodness Steve Jobs did so — as many of you know, I am among the faithful when it comes to Apple products, and believe a forceful personality was necessary in this case to elevate design in the anarchic world of technology.This is what’s missing from so many of the success stories that surround us, in vivid Technicolor: data on probability. It’s a classic case of availability bias, and in the Gladwellian era of business journalism, we are ever more focused on celebration of individual stories, often selecting for the anomalous.
My personal reality distortion field is a case of optimism, and I believe there is mounting evidence that the business environment is changing in ways that increasingly favor the kind, generous business leader. “Nice guy” business leaders still fire people who don’t perform and make hard decisions, but they consider it their job to create warm supportive environments with opportunities for growth. The Barry Diller approach, which Steve Jobs was also susceptible to, is going the way of the hammered dulcimer. There are three reasons for this:
1) The importance of attracting talent – the best people are less and less willing to deal with hot-headed leaders, because every year it’s getting easier to start companies or change jobs if you have desirable skills.
2) Customers are more and more informed, and they like supporting companies that are forces for good. Obnoxious leaders breed obnoxious companies, and the cost of alienating even a very small subset of the population has gotten lot higher.
3) Industries are increasingly non-zero sum, and consequently businesses with more collaborative cultures outcompete those with less collaborative ones. This is category dependent, of course – Amazon’s winner-take-all approach may be well adapted to the low margin e-commerce environment.
All in, I believe that the highest probability paths to success and happiness — two conditions, it should be noted, that are often uncorrelated – are not well exemplified by Jobs or Zuckerberg. Ruthlessness born of misanthropy or alienation has propelled business leaders for generations in zero sum game industries, but it’s increasingly ill-adapted to the modern world, and from a happiness perspective, you don’t want to be that guy. This was one of the more surprising take aways from the Jobs biography – he seems remarkably discontent, all things considered. He treated us customers a lot better than he did the people immediately around him, and the latter is what sets the table for life satisfaction.
As Steven Covey said years ago, helping others succeed may not always be the fastest way to succeed, but it never fails. It’s not the Jobsian way, but if you only have one life to live it’s the higher probability path.