One of his jobs on the apple farm was to prune the apple trees. Pruning involves cutting off many branches in order to promote the health of a few branches, which leads to bigger, better fruit. Without pruning, nutrients get diverted away from the one thing that matters: the apples.
While this may seem like a quaint, yet somewhat irrelevant story, it powerfully illustrates the driving force that propelled Jobs from obscure computer nerd to being the creator of multiple industry shattering products.
When you look at his life, you could describe him in a thousand different ways. Innovator. Genius. Artist. Technological prophet. Salesman.
And while these words are appropriate, perhaps the most appropriate word to describe Jobs is, “No.”
One of, if not his greatest strength was his ability to say no to a thousand good things in order to say yes to the greatest thing. He was able identify the one or two opportunities that would change everything and then focus so intently on those things that they became realities.
It didn’t matter how long it took or how many times he failed. Once Jobs fixed his attention on something, he relentlessly pursued it, saying no to everything else he encountered.
Steve Jobs climbed the ladder of greatness by making, “No,” his favorite word.
Meetings For Pruning
Every Monday, Jobs and his executive team would meet to discuss the future and direction of Apple. Underneath all these meetings was the principle of saying, “No,” to the many.
As Walter Isaacson notes in his book Steve Jobs:
Instead of encouraging each group to let product lines proliferate based on marketing considerations, or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time. “There is no one better at turning off the noise that is going on around him,” [Tim] Cook said. “That allows him to focus on a few things and say no to many things. Few people are really good at that.”
The tech industry is known for creating huge arrays of products. For creating dozens of different computers and mobile phones and tablets. Because each of these products requires huge amounts of money and work, the result is often numerous mediocre items.
In the midst of that kind of chaos, Jobs narrowed his focus to the two or three most important priorities. He knew that it would be better to produce one great, world changing product than ten mediocre ones.
Isaacson also notes that Jobs passed on this ability to focus to his successor, Tim Cook. Cook said:
We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing… We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us.
Every day we are bombarded with 1,000 good things. Our inboxes rapidly fill up, coworkers are pinging us on Slack, and there’s an interesting conversation happening on Twitter. While all these things can be good, they keep us from doing the one great thing we’re called to do.
If we’re going to do great, and not just good things, we need to be obsessive about narrowing our focus. About saying no to thousands of things so we can really focus on the one or two things that are important.
This is why it’s so essential to focus on our most important task first thing every morning. To eat our frog, slay our dragon, and chart our path for the day.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown puts it this way:
We discover how even the many good opportunities we pursue are often far less valuable than the few truly great ones. Once we understand this, we start scanning our environment for those vital few and eagerly eliminate the trivial many. Only then can we say no to good opportunities and say yes to truly great ones.
Every day, we must ask ourselves, “What is the essential task I must complete today?”
Only when we say no to a thousand opportunities can we say yes to what matters.
“God Gave Us Ten Styluses”
In the early 2000’s, when Personal Digital Assistants were coming onto the scene, they all had styluses (a little digital pencil of sorts). Palm Pilot and the like dominated the market, and all their devices employed a stylus. Clearly, the stylus worked and was considered to be a good thing by the industry.
For some time, Apple even had a PDA called “Newton”, which used a stylus and had been the pet project of John Sculley. Jobs hated the Newton, and he especially hated the stylus.
Again, quoting Isaacson:
One of his pet peeves was Newton, the handheld personal digital assistant that boasted handwriting recognition capability. It was not quite as bad as the jokes and Doonesbury comic strip made it seem, but Jobs hated it. He disdained the idea of having a stylus or pen for writing on a screen. “God gave us ten styluses,” he would say, waving his fingers. “Let’s not invent another.”
Jobs knew that the future of PDAs, and eventually mobile phones and tablets, was the fingers. The Newton was a money maker for Apple and represented a “good” opportunity. But Jobs insisted on saying, “No,” to the opportunity, eventually killing off the device.
Of course, we know how the rest of the story goes. Jobs continued his obsession with the finger, first creating the iPod with trackwheel, then releasing the iPhone and iPad, which rocked the world.
This was how he operated, and this relentless focus on one thing at a time greatly contributed to Apple’s huge success.
As James Surowiecki notes in The New Yorker:
After his return to Apple, in 1997, he got personally involved with things like how many screws there were in a laptop case. It took six months until he was happy with the way that scroll bars in OS X worked. Jobs believed that, for an object to resonate with consumers, every piece of it had to be right, even the ones you couldn’t see.
We live in the most distracting time in history. We are literally carrying distractions around in our pockets and on our wrists. We are assaulted by a thousand notifications and beeps and buzzes every day.
The ability to extract the essential from the trivial is what sets apart the most productive, successful people. It’s what allows some to climb to the top and others to get mired in busy work.
Consider how you might focus on your one essential thing every day:
- Make identifying your most important task part of your morning or nightly ritual.
- Shut down all distracting devices first thing in the morning.
- Close your door or put on headphones.
- Refuse to answer email until you’ve finished your task.
Are these steps extreme? Maybe. But they’re also necessary. Steve Jobs lived life in extremes. He focused to the extreme. He was passionate to the extreme. And he was successful to the extreme.
Will You Be Apple or Microsoft?
In the mid to late 2000’s, Apple dominated the tech market, far exceeding what Microsoft could produce. This was partially due to Jobs’ relentless pursuit of the best. Unlike Microsoft, which tried to integrate with numerous sorts of computers, platforms, and software, Apple insisted on being a closed system. The operating system would only work on Apple computers and all applications had to be designed in strict accordance with Apple’s standards.
This strategy, of going smaller rather than bigger, led to much better products. Products that simply worked. Computers that didn’t crash or get infected with malware. MP3 players that integrated seamlessly with the computers.
By saying no to many things, Apple did a few things to perfection.
Will you be Apple or will you be Microsoft? Will you pursue many good opportunities at the expense of the best opportunities?
Or will you relentlessly say, “No?”