Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thoughts on Steve Jobs

With all the paeans pouring in about Steve Jobs being one of the greatest American CEOs who ever lived and an innovator on the scale of Thomas Edison, I feel the need to point out one important fact. Someone with Steve Jobs' background would be unable even to get a mailroom job in today's corporate America. The irony of Jobs being lionized by business executives who, had they met Jobs as a young student wouldn't even allow him past the front lobby, is more than I can bear. With today's era of background checks, drug tests, and personality quizzes, what chance would a person have in today's hyper-competitive job market with the following biography:

1. Child of poor unwed parents. Adopted by a machinist father who did not graduate high school.
2. College dropout from a second-tier college on the West Coast. No degree whatsoever.
3. Extensive gaps in resume - time spent not working.
4. Admitted drug user (LSD).

Such a person would never even get his foot in the door of a modern corporation, who look for bland overachievers with no blemishes on their record, much less rise to the top spot. Would the young Jobs, with his long hair and Hare Krishna robes even be able to get a hearing from a venture capitalist today? My question is this: how much are we losing by relegating middle-class dreamers and nonconformists who do not fit the corporate mold to the margins of society? What are we losing by relegating such people to be day shift managers and stock clerks for minimum wage? How can such people realize their full potential, as Jobs did? How much entrepreneurial spirit are we strangling in it's crib by a culture so dominated by corporate power and greed? How can we expect to create the Steve Jobs of the future when even young people with degrees cannot find work?

Look at who rises to the top in corporate America and there is an alarming similarity: wealthy families, privileged backgrounds, private schooling, top of their class, Ivy League eduction. Their free time is spent burnishing their resumes and clawing their way up the ladder, not wandering aimlessly in India or taking calligraphy classes. They are what James Atlas in his excellent New York Times piece calls the Super People. This has led to a class of gray flannel suited conformity to rise to the apex of our institutions, and yet we wonder why as a society we're unable to think differently. The CEO class has become as rigid and inbred as the British aristocracy. The only reason a Steve Jobs could appear in the first place was because the computer industry was such a new paradigm, so outside of the mainstream corporate culture as to leave room for quirky individuals to find their niche. Try getting a job at a computer company today with one semester of college under your belt. You would probably need a Masters Degree from a top-tier institution just to be considered for an entry-level position. So, I am forced to ask, what would be the fate of a Steve Jobs today?

No doubt there are plenty of Steve Jobs out there that we've never heard of - travelling, seeking, dreaming at the fringes of society. With the domination of elites at all levels, will they have the same opportunities he had in the 1970s? Jobs was clearly not a Super Person by today's standards. I ponder some of the lines from Jobs' legendary Standford commencement speech:

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

Decent advice delivered to people graduating with a degree from one of the most elite institutions in the country, but what about the son of a machinist? What about the poor child of a broken home? As a child of just such an environment, this strikes a nerve. I am inspired by Jobs advice, but this is not the 1970s anymore. Times have changed, and not for the better. Why do I have the feeling that if I followed it today, I would most likely end up unemployed, without health care, and more likely homeless than a billionaire?

Even Jobs himself was not immune to this culture of conformity. Apple, the very company he helped found, eventually pushed him out because as it expanded and became a major corporation, the board felt that Jobs did not fit the mold of a typical CEO. It got a cookie-cutter Harvard-trained "traditional" CEO (via Pepsi), and it flailed about for years going downhill.

By that time, fortunately, Jobs was wealthy from his years at Apple, and his wealth allowed him a chance to stay in the game, working at the head of other companies. He eventually got a second chance at the top at Apple, and made a brilliant success out of it. But without that wealth cushion of his earlier work, this "genius" would have disappeared from the stage of history, and never had a chance to envision the iPad, iPod, or iPhone that are so celebrated. Again I ask, what are missing by making sure only the "right" people are decision makers?

Now personally, I don't buy at all into the Steve Jobs as genius story. It's an ex-post-facto explanation - he ended up as a CEO and therefore he must be a genius. The CEO as genius trope must be reinforced to justify the outrageous salary and perks they receive. The idea that no "ordinary" person can do their job, so they must be one-in-a-million has to be maintained, otherwise the public might start to wonder if it's actually social connections rather than extraordinary talent that makes a CEO. So viola - the story of Steve Jobs as a genius was born. This is not to discount Jobs' abilities or talent. He was clearly an extraordinary person who would have been undoubtedly successful in whatever he ended up doing. But would his obituary have been in the New York Times? If you look closely at his history, you will see not genius but something else.

Simply put, Jobs was lucky. He admitted as much in his Stanford speech. He was in the right place at the right time. He was raised in the heart of Silicon Valley, the hub of the computer industry. He met Steve Wozniak in high school. He was in a place where transformative innovations and innovators were part of the scenery. It was an environment where someone with reasonable vision, drive and persuasion skills could make a mark. And its countercultural roots made room for people outside of the mainstream to survive. All this contributed to his success. You didn't need to be a genius, or even have a college degree, if you had the vision and the drive. What would have happened if Steve's adoptive parents had lived in a Rust Belt town instead of Silicon Valley? When someone with his background becomes a runaway success, it captures our imagination. When yet another Harvard or Yale grad becomes a CEO, no one cares outside of the business press - it's practically expected.

We all assume that some magical ethereal power will make "geniuses" like Jobs into successes, despite all the odds we stack against them today - impoverished and overcrowded schools, stratospheric college costs, a dearth of jobs, low wages, lack of affordable health care, competition against workers all over the world. Again and again, we assume it's all about only the individual and society doesn't matter. That success is all due to individual effort and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Individual greatness will make you a success no matter what your external circumstances, we like to think. It's part of our Horatio Alger mythology, and people like Jobs we see as confirmation of that world view.

But let's not fall into survivorship bias - we see the success of Steve Jobs and Apple, but we'll never see the innovative ideas and creative people who were beaten down by a system designed to cater to the already successful at the expense of everyone else. To the right-wingers who praise innovation, maybe you should ask yourself, is your dog-eat-dog vision of society really the one that promises it? Or rather is it the kind of society where even the son of a machinist who dropped out of college and did acid has a chance to put himself in a position to change the world? Our country no longer gives people a chance to meet their potential. That's what happens when you create a class-based society - you stagnate. Is our stagnation, cultural, social, and economic, the product of a society whose class structure is now as rigid as that of the Europe many of our ancestors left? The American belief is that some inherent greatness makes such people into successes irrespective of their environment. It's an almost mystical view inherited from our Calvinist forebearers. I don't agree.

It was the environment that Steve Jobs found himself in that allowed him to live up to his potential as much as his native abilities. And by allowing people to live up to their potential we all benefit. By not allowing them to do so, we all lose. And losing we are. Success isn't just individual effort. Jobs didn't invent the microchip, or even the mouse; other people did that. Hundreds of programmers worked for him. Computer and electronic innovations went back for decades by that time. He literally stood, in Newton's phrase, on the shoulders of giants. So was it individual effort, or did the social environment play a key role too? What potential are we squandering by only allowing people who can afford six-figure degrees to line up at the starting gate? If college costs ate up Jobs' parents savings in the 1970s, what would happen today when the average college cost has risen over 1,000 percent? Would someone whose parents had a high-school education be able to save anything at all today as they were back then - money that allowed Jobs to explore and find his niche as he did? Can students saddled with unpayable debt and who must constantly work to pay it off ever hope to have the flexibility to find their true calling? Do we run the risk that somehow some inherent greatness will propel people who start with the deck stacked against them to the top a la Jobs irrespective of the barriers we erect in front of them? Do we think innovations will come from a population that is barely staying afloat? I don't think it's a good risk to take.

And simply mouthing platitudes about entrepreneurship and "creating your own opportunities" gets us nowhere. Even innovations are now confined to elite institutions whose gates are barred by costs no ordinary person could afford. How would a Steve Jobs even get access to today's innovations - genetics, materials science, supercomputing? And loans are harder and harder to come by for ordinary people as money disappears into the pockets of the already wealthy. It's romantic to say start ups always emerge from suburban garages, but the truth is, they don't. We need to stop thinking that way if we're going to give the Steve Jobs' of the future a chance to achieve their potential. How many iPod-like ideas are destined to forever remain only a dream in some stock clerk's head in Canton, Ohio?

Today's college dropouts are relegated to a life of low-wage dead-end jobs and drudgery. Even middle-class students who do go to college are turned into debt donkeys, paying off burdensome loans that cannot be discharged under any circumstances, unable to travel to India or anywhere else, unable take the kind of circuitous journey that eventually led to the Mackintosh and the iPod. Jobs often talked about how the calligraphy classes he took after dropping out eventually had an impact on the Mackintosh font design. Today, classes are so costly that Arts and Liberal Arts majors are ridiculed for not studying "useful" subjects like engineering and medicine. By not allowing that type of aimlessness, by forcing people to be constantly at the grindstone just to stay afloat, how many ideas are we strangling before they can get off the ground?

You hear a lot of grousing these days from the usual suspects about lack of innovation, lack of entrepreneurship, lack of drive in America. Maybe the way we've structured our business and our society has something to do with that. When a small group of Wall Street banks controls all the money, and a handful of global corporations control the markets, and they both buy and sell our political class to benefit themselves, why are we surprised that innovation suffers? When we fail to make basic investments in society, why are we surprised? When a small group of elites get the best of everything while the majority works longer hours for less and less each year, and when more and more children are born into poverty, why are we surprised? Is a winner-take-all society conducive to producing a Steve Jobs?

Business-minded conservatives who idolize billionaire CEO's and innovations like the iPod promote the kind of society where a Steve Jobs would have little change of becoming much more than a stock clerk at Best Buy. Maybe the kind of society they promote doesn't lead to innovation after all. What do we lose by a society that caters to the wealthiest 1 percent while its middle class is dismantled? Do we assume that all great thinkers come from only this rarefied strata of society? What chance would a hippie college dropout today have to get a job at Atari, as Jobs once did? We think of ourselves as a nation of entrepreneurs, but how can you be a nation of entrepreneurs without a middle class? How can people create startups when they come out of the gate with unpayable debt? Does a safety net for the middle class, not just wealthy investors, a safety net that corporate America is working tirelessly to dismantle, not lead to more risk taking, not less? And if the public cannot afford innovations, how can they get off the ground? Would today's cash-strapped and overindebted consumers even be able to afford any new innovation that came along like the Apple IIe?

Jobs called himself a child of the Seventies. In the 1980's, we took a very different turn, and have followed that road ever since. How many startups have come from garages since then? Not many. And all of our "innovation" has been on Wall Street. One theme of Jobs' commencement address was connecting the dots. Why are we unable to connect the dots between the kind of society we've created since 1980 and our social, cultural, and economic stagnation? The fact that a person like Steve Jobs with his unique personality and unconventional life was able to make it to the top offers us a lesson. Sometimes greatness comes from where we least expect it. Societies that allow even common folks to rise to their potential are the ones that create and innovate, not ones where ordinary people struggle to survive. Even great men can only rise in a great society. Do we have such a society today? Or have we dismantled it forever? It seems Steve Jobs has one final lesson to impart.

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