Allen R. McConnell

Allen R McConnell Ph.D.

The Social Self

Steve Jobs's Success: Not Just Technological, but Psychological

Steve Jobs and important lessons for life

Posted Aug 25, 2011

The sudden resignation of Apple CEO Steve Jobs last night will lead to considerable analysis by economists and technologists about the impact of one of the leading entrepreneurs in U.S. history for many years to come. Certainly Jobs's ability to return to Apple and rebuild a floundering computer company into one of the most successful corporations in the world is an amazing feat.

When we think of Apple today, we think of sleek Macintosh computers, iPods that totally transformed the music industry, iPhones that reinvented our perceptions of mobile phones, and now iPads that might revolutionize everything from media to portable computing. Although these impressive achievements resulted from many talented designers and engineers, many view Jobs's contributions as a tech visionary as central to Apple's triumph. I would contend that part of Jobs's success hinges considerably on his prescient grasp of psychological principles involving the self, life, and how to live it.

Jobs is a fiercely private man, and he guards details about his family and his health quite closely. However, in a rare public speech that had nothing to do with unveiling the latest gadgets from Cupertino, Jobs offered a very insightful commencement address in 2005 to the graduates of Stanford University. In his speech, Jobs shared three stories that revealed important personal truths that inspired him and guided his living. With Jobs's resignation, it seems appropriate to ponder the psychology underlying his stories and their insights.

1) Steve Jobs, college drop out: Go with your gut

Jobs attended Reed College for only one semester before withdrawing, and he spent the next year and a half casually sitting in on various classes on campus. Having once turned down a job as a professor at Reed College (a decision that still, to this day, I continue to question), I recall hearing many people during my interview at Reed tell me that "Steve Jobs is one of our greatest success stories -- and he only took classes here for one semester." It might seem strange that a college dropout would eventually run a corporation with over $300 Billion in market cap, but it is clear that he didn't need college to learn critical life lessons.

In his address to the graduates at Stanford, Jobs recalled how he attended college for one term to honor a wish of his adopted parents, but left because he felt that college was not helping him figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He shifted his energies from taking required courses to delving into topics that he found intrinsically interesting. For example, he learned a lot about typography in a calligraphy class at Reed, and his fascination continued later at Apple as he insisted that the first Macintosh computer come equipped with an array of typefaces and fonts (rather than one fixed type style, as all other previous computers did). His insistence on variable fonts ushered in an age of desktop publishing with computers. By dropping out of college, he stopped trying to explicitly chart a course for his life in prospect, and instead, made maverick decisions by trusting his gut feelings.

In psychological terms, Jobs was relying less on propositional, logical, rational thinking and drawing more upon knowledge based on intuitive, gut-level, association-based knowledge. A number of different literatures, ranging from implicit attitudes to the development of expertise, demonstrates that relying on one's instincts and gut feelings can be more effective than logic-grounded reasoning in many cases, especially when one (1) has considerable expertise with the domains in question, (2) is rendering judgments that deal more with aesthetics and emotions, or (3) is considering decisions that are extremely complex and difficult to verbalize. The literature would not argue that "deliberative thinking is always wrong," however, there is considerable evidence across many domains of psychology that effortful deliberation can be counterproductive in many cases. When one's consumer electronics products are as much about aesthetics, emotions, and experiences as they are about circuitry and features, "going with one's gut" is probably an excellent strategy for success. And further, because creativity is the product of spontaneous insight rather than hours of deliberative thinking, innovation is best served by relying on one's intuition and instincts more than one's "rational brain."

2) Steve Jobs, ousted co-founder of Apple: Do what you love

One of the amazing things about Jobs's odyssey is that although he helped found Apple computer in the 1970s in a Cupertino garage and was instrumental in the launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984, Jobs was removed from Apple in 1985 following a power struggle over the company's future direction. A dozen years later, Jobs returned to Apple tasked with the job of salvaging a wayward company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

In his Stanford commencement address, Jobs noted that his ouster at age 30 from the company that he co-founded "was devastating." He told the graduates that he contemplated leaving Silicon Valley because he "was a very public failure." But instead, he realized that his dismissal was a blessing in disguise because he was able to return to pursuing the things he loved. During a five year period, he founded Pixar (the incredibly successful movie studio that practically invented the genre of computer animated feature films), founded NeXT computer (which eventually was purchased by Apple and became the basis of its current Mac OS X computer operating system), and met his wife Laurene. This rebirth period was spurred by Jobs pursuing things he loved. To quote his commencement address, Jobs told the students that "the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

The notion of being motivated by the things we intrinsically care about and love is at the heart of success according to many psychological theories. For example, self-determination theory is one of the leading theories of motivation, and one of its central tenants is that when people experience autonomy, competence, and social relatedness, they exhibit the greatest performance, persistence, and creativity. Other areas of research, such as work on the over-justification effect, shows that when people perform tasks for extrinsic rewards (e.g., money, fame, accolades) instead of intrinsic rewards, they ultimately lose interest in the activities. Thus, by Jobs pursuing success for intrinsic reasons (e.g., pride in making the best consumer experiences possible, making beautiful equipment) instead of extrinsic reasons (e.g., greater profits, bigger raises), the result should be greater success, creativity, and happiness.

3) Steve Jobs, life-threatening illnesses: Don't waste a moment in life

For all of Jobs's great successes and accomplishments, his health has always provided serious reminders of life's limits. In 2004, Jobs announced that he had pancreatic cancer. Fortunately for Jobs, it was a rare but treatable condition, and he recovered. In 2009, Jobs took a medical leave to deal with more health issues -- in this case, he underwent a liver transplant. Earlier this year, he once again took another medical leave to "focus on his health." In all likelihood, Jobs's sudden departure yesterday was instigated by his on-going health problems.

Yet, in his address at Stanford, Jobs addressed the empowerment that comes with facing one's own mortality. In his speech, he said, "all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important." It is clear that facing mortality brought a sense of liberation and a determination to make the most of every day in his life. His perspective on death in the speech was interesting and inspiring. He called death "the single best invention of life" because it's an agent for change. Specifically, he urged the graduates to embrace life: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." He told them to follow their heart, inner voice, and intuition instead of others' dogma and expectations.

Many of us have faced death, either our own or the passing of a close loved one. We know these are clarion moments that call us to congress with our greater humanity, facing what matters most and identifying the features that truly define our limits and commonalities. These times do more than encourage reflection and rededication, they underscore how the billionaire and the pauper are on equal footing on the qualities that matter most. We all die. We all face limits. And if people are to work productively, collectively, and respectfully together, it is essential that people focus on their common goals instead of on ways to distinguish themselves from each other. Moreover, a recognition that one's time is finite and limited also serves to focus people on what truly matters and ignore the trappings of life that are superfluous. Empathy, genuine concern for others, and an appreciation of common fate encourage collaboration, cooperation, and joint maximization of outcomes. However, when people focus on what distinguishes and differentiates themselves, competition, negative emotions, and poorer outcomes result.


This analysis is not intended to argue that Steve Jobs is a perfect man or that everything related to Apple's success is good or Jobs's doing. However, it is striking to see that for someone who has often been vilified as competitive, stubborn, and antagonistic, the values that he articulated in his Stanford commencement speech reflect some of the better angels of our nature. Although we may not know the private Steve Jobs very well, the qualities communicated in his address at Stanford suggest someone whose own life story has taught him important lessons for happiness and success. We all may not be able to be billionaires who revolutionize many monolithic industries, but we can all take stock in some of the lessons learned by those who are.

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