Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

“They” Rule Most People’s World, but They Shouldn’t Rule Yours.

Who the Hell are “They” Anyway?

How often do you hear the phrase “they say”? As in: “They say it’s going to rain on Wednesday.” “They say the Cubs are going to have a good team this year.” “They say the climate in changing.” “They say that’s the way we always do things.” “They say you can’t do that.”

I could go on ad infinitum with examples of this ubiquitous little banality, but I think you get the point. The “they say” qualifier is so pervasive in common conversation, we pay little note to it, except to accord it a credibility it may not deserve.

The use of the “they say” phrase is generally intended to imply the relative truth or generally proven perception theysaidsurrounding the particular statement that follows. The assumption we are expected to accept is that, if “they” say it, it must be true. Even if we don’t know who “they” are, it’s assumed that this faceless group is a reasonably informed and unbiased source whose opinions are invariably better than yours.

In most cases, such as dealing with the weather, sports or politics, this lazy reliance on what “they say” is so innocuous it does little harm. However, when it comes to how we live our lives or seek career success, an important lesson to learn is that most of those who are “they sayers” are in reality “naysayers.”

If we blindly accept what “they say” and allow it to influence our attitudes and actions it can have a very deleterious impact on our future. Without taking the time to question and challenge what “they say,” – especially when it comes to our life, career and future – we run the risk that “they,” not we, will be in control of our future.

Taylor Swift best expressed this sentiment in her first hit-song, Tim McGraw:

They say not to have too much fun
They say not to get too much sun
Democrat, Republican
I guess I’m screwed, I’m neither one
Don’t say “hell”, say “what the heck”
Do what’s politically correct
Don’t pray in school, but have safe sex
Isn’t that what they expect?

Who are they?
Yea you know what they say
Who are they?
Someone I gotta pay
Who are they?

They probably own the Village Voice
The Nashville Scene, The People’s Choice
To me it is all a bunch of noise
Decided on by the funny boys
They say who does and don’t belong
They say our hair’s too short or long
They say who’s right and who is wrong
As if we’ll all just come along

Swift’s implied advice is prescient beyond her years. Where would we be today if, for example, Henry Ford had caved in to what “they” said in 1908; that manufacturing an automobile so inexpensive that even the workmen who assembled it could afford to buy one was a fanciful pipe dream? Suppose Fred Smith had taken to heart when “they said” that express overnight parcel delivery was an impossibility? That’s right. They’d be no FedEx. And how about Steve Jobs? They said in the late 1990s that Apple was finished; a has-been company doomed for the corporate junkyard. But Jobs refused to accept what “they said.” And his transformative technology reshaped one industry after another, from computers and smartphones to music and movies. In the process, of course, he also reshaped our lives.  As a side note, Taylor Swift would probably be writing poetry while on Wal-Mart coffee breaks today if she had accepted the “truth” that major music publishing houses don’t hire teenage songwriters (she landed her first writing gig at Sony/ATV when she was 14).

You are probably going to meet a lot of “theys” in your life and career, just as Ford, Smith, Jobs and many others did. I know I have. They want us to believe that they know what is best and that it is best for us to go along with what they say.

From my perspective, the best way to respond to what they say is to say, “you don’t say.” In other words, you should be the one to have the say, not they. If we blindly allow the “they says” to influence our thoughts and actions, the opportunity to prove that they were wrong will be lost.

The problem is that “they says” evolve into a set of rules promulgated by an amorphous group of “theys.” These cheattowincoverbecome presumptions and assumed truths that must be followed because they say so.  Some of the biggest “they say” edicts I have experienced include: “They say you can’t attack the traditional products of the industry.” “They say you can’t start a new life insurance company.” “They say you can’t give all employees ownership in the company.” “They say you can’t write a book titled, Cheat To Win. Thank goodness I didn’t listen to what they say.

The truth is that success is easier when we don’t allow what “they say” to determine what we do. Listen to their idle pronouncements with a cheerful inner indifference. The key question you’ll be silently asking is who “they” are. Challenge the “they says” and when you do, more often than not, you will find they lack credence. Careers should not be built on what “they say.” Rather, a career should be based on what you say and do.

The next time someone throws a “they say” at you – especially when it pertains to what you want to achieve – stop, question and challenge the assumptions behind the “they say.” If you find their views based more or custom and assumption than reality – and you often will – you will recognize the opportunity to prove that what you say is more viable than what they say. The poet Edgar Guest noted that when he wrote:

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

The real path to success, is not what “they” said, but what “we” did.

Real Problems are Best Resolved by the Audacious—not the Pusillanimous

Doing the unthinkable is often easier than merely thinking about what cannot be done.

When faced with seemingly intractable complex problems, most leaders, if they act at all, seek a solution by applying complicated, tedious, timid and incremental actions. More often than not, this approach not only fails to uncover a workable solution, but actually exacerbates the problem. The reality is that the more imponderable a problem seems to be, the more likely that audacious, bold, but simple actions will be the easiest to implement and offer the greatest opportunity for success.

History offers a cadre of individuals who, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, fell upon audacious ideas and actions to achieve success.

  • In 218 B.C., Hannibal, a Punic Carthaginian military commander, embarked on an audacious act for which he is  still remembered 2,200 years later. He marched his entire army, including war elephants, from Iberia over what was thought to be the impenetrable Pyrenees and the Alps into northern Italy. This action allowed him to hold the “invincible” Roman Empire at bay and occupy much of Italy for 15 years.
  • In 1776 a group of patriots stymied in their efforts to resolve the problem of continued harassment and impositions of British colonial rule had the audacious idea that they could defeat the most powerful nation in the world and start a new country with a republican – as opposed to a monarchical – form of government.
  • At the end of World War II, Secretary of State George Marshall had an audacious plan to break the cycle of centuries of constant wars in Europe. Where endless treaties, alliances and conferences failed, the “Marshall Plan” (financed by $15 billion of American aid) created an economic interdependence among the nations of Europe that set the foundation for the European Union of today.
  • In 1967, despite the 200-year existence of an effective vaccine, millions across the globe were still dying from the scourge of smallpox. The World Health Organization set upon an audacious goal to immunize every individual in the world. In a short 12 years later, smallpox had vanished from the world.
  • In the 1970s, when computers were housed in sterile, warehouse-sized enclosures, Bill Gates had the audacious idea of “a computer for every desktop and every home.” And he called it Microsoft. (The “Micro” being a small computer to run the software his company was developing.)
  • At the same time, as the U. S. Post Office struggled to find a way to deliver mail in a week, another individual – Fred Smith – had the audacious idea to deliver mail “overnight”; and he called it Federal Express.
  • In 1987, when the insurance industry was burdened under the weight of stagnant institutions, antiquated processes and obsolete products, a group of individuals had the audacious idea to start an entirely new insurance company. That company – LifeUSA – sought to introduce a new type of corporate culture to revolutionize the way companies did business and create a new approach to products. Despite the odds against it, this company quickly became the fastest growing and one of the most successful in the industry.

The point here is that as counter intuitive as it may seem, the best way to overcome difficult challenges and complicated problems is to be audacious, not precautious. While the tendency is to seek a solution to complicated problems with timid tinkering or complicated fixes, real answers are discovered in audacious reinvention, not re-engineering. The core of real problem solving is not found in trying to fix the results of what has gone wrong, but by correcting what it is that caused things to go wrong. The difference between the timid and the audacious is that the former seeks to fix the problem, while the audacious seek to eliminate the causes of the problem. The path to audaciousness is to challenge the way things have been done in order to find ways to do things that should be done.

History Should Teach Us a Few Things 

A real-life example of this type of situation exists now as the country is confronted with three seemingly intractable problems that, if not resolved, could have a dramatic, negative impact on the country. These conundrums are: Social Security, Medicare and our convoluted tax code.

We have witnessed the inability of political leaders to solve the problems inherent in these existing systems. If ever there was a time that called for audacious actions to solve a problem, that time is now. But instead than being audacious, the politicos timidly dance around the edges, offer short-term patches or suggest complicated changes; all of which are designed to respond to the result of the problem, not the problem itself.

Take Social Security, for example. Established in 1935 as a federal program designed to provide a guaranteed lifetime basic income for those in retirement. The concept was and is a good one. But the problem is that the solvency of the current system is at risk because of unfunded promises and assumptions that are no longer valid. Because of this, fixes that only address the result of this problem don’t go to the heart of the issue and only make things worse.

When Social Security was enacted 75 years ago, the life expectancy of the average male in the United States was age 54. This meant that with the initial retirement age set at 65, most of those eligible to receive payments would never collect; and those who did receive payments would do so for a short period of time. That made sense, but today the average American male can anticipate living to age 74 (almost 80 for women) and the life expectancy of a male child born today is well into their 80s. And most people now spend 15 to 20 years in retirement.

Yes, there has been tinkering with the Social Security retirement age, but such provisional tweaking don’t address the fundamental problem of people living remarkably longer. The vast majority of Social Security payments still commence at age 65 (or even younger) and those payments will be made for a lot longer period than initially anticipated. The reality of extended longevity and longer periods in retirement makes a shambles of the original assumptions for the funding of Social Security and are at the core of the system’s problems.

There are other underlying issues as well: At the time Social Security was enacted it excluded more than 50 percent of social-securityworking males (and 90 percent of working women and minorities). Now the system offers virtually universal coverage along with extended widows and disability benefits. The payroll tax collected to pay for Social Security benefits is capped, so the wealthy pay a smaller percentage of their income for benefits received. Social Security was intended to be a “safety-net” for low income individuals, but there is no “means-testing” as to need; so the wealthy receive the same benefit as the poor.

The takeaway here is that all of these issues have converged into what seems to be a complicated and intractable problem that defies solution. Unfortunately, that is the case when those charged with solving the problem offer only complicated, tedious, timid and incremental actions. If this approach continues, the end result will be a continuing problem for current and future participants, along with the country as a whole. If ever an audacious solution to solving a problem was needed, Social Security fits the bill. So what might that audacious solution be?

Social Security was intended to be an actuarially sound universal insurance program, so let’s be audacious and treat it that way. When an insurance company discovers that it has written a “bad-book” of business it does not continue to add additional policies to the book or go to policyholders and ask them to accept reduced benefits. What the insurance company does is “close the book” and allow the existing liabilities to run-off. Then, using updated assumptions and experience, the company designs a new policy for the market.

When a company takes this action, it still has to take its lumps for the bad business written, and the existing participants will receive the benefits that have been promised, but the ultimate liability (losses) are capped and eventually will disappear naturally as policyholders die. This would be an audacious approach to solving the problems of Social Security, but it would work.

What the government could do is simply “close the book” on the existing Social Security program. Those already receiving Social Security benefits and those 55 and older would remain in the current program, with no change in benefits. Deficits in the funding for the existing program would continue – quite possibly increase – for a period of time, but they would be capped and ultimately disappear as participants die.

At the same time, an entirely new program – based on current assumptions and experience – could be designed and implemented for those under age 55. It could, for example, set the age for receiving benefits at 70 or even 75. The payroll taxes necessary to pay for the benefits of the new program could be applied to total income and not capped at an artificial level. Benefits would be “means-tested” so that a certain level of income or assets, some participants would receive benefits equal to what they put in and no more.

Certainly these ideas may seem extreme, but it is the type of audacious thinking needed to solve real problems. In reality, the ideas suggested are not as radical as them may seem at first glance. The original Social Security plan set the age for receiving benefits at least 10 years beyond what was the current life expectancy; setting receipt of benefits at the current life expectancy is actually a more liberal approach. In addition, a recent survey discovered that over 60 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 60 want and plan to work beyond the “normal” retirement age.

The audacious idea to freeze the current system and reinvent a new system with future benefits based on up to date assumptions and experience would protect the benefits of those currently receiving Social Security and assure future retirees that a viable program will be there when they need it.

Of course you have to be audacious to think that our political leaders have the courage to do what it takes to really solve problems. And that may be the biggest problem of all.

And the Moral of the Story …

When faced with what seems to be an intractable problem, most make the mistake attempting to implement fixes that respond to the results rather than the cause of the problem. Problems can be intimidating, complicated and seemingly insoluble when the approach to solving the problem is a combination of complicated, tedious, timid and incremental fixes. Meeting challenging problems is often best accomplished with audacious reinvention, rather than timorous reengineering.

Often the most significant impediment to solving a complicated problem is an unwillingness to be audacious enough to solve the problem.


A Worm in the Apple’s Core?

Penetrating Questions about the Future Apple Harvest

This past week, both The New York Times and USA TODAY posted articles suggesting that Apple’s ability to sustain its phenomenal record of growth and success is in question. This concern was triggered when Apple (AAPL) stock briefly dropped below $500 per share, a stunning 29 percent drop from its all-time high of $705 per share high set in September 2012. Shareholders are obviously anxious about the future performance of Apple since, for three of the past five quarters, the company has missed earnings expectations. What sort of earnings CEO Tim Cook will report in its quarterly confessional on Wednesday is anybody’s guess, but Apple investors are apprehensive, and they have plenty to worry about.


At the top of the list, of course, is the loss of the company’s inspirational leader, Steve Jobs, but financial pundits also have other concerns. They point out that it has been three years since Apple introduced a truly market-changing innovation. They fret that Apple is now competing in a market that is becoming saturated with product. That Apple is fighting the law of large numbers and increased competition. Maybe even more foreboding is that others have begun to “out-innovate” the market’s iconic innovator. The real fear of course is that with Apple now such a large and integral part of the American economic and investment market – if only in psyche – any hiccup by Apple has a rippling effect across not only the tech market, but the entire market.

Firstest with the Mostest

As troubling as these signs are for the future performance of Apple, they are not the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem. What is playing out here is a very fundamental conundrum for any successful company. Apple made history by getting to the future first. When you get to the future first, you force others to live by your concept of the future. The competition has to learn and follow your rules. And they will. And when they do, you are no longer alone in the future. Instead, you become mired in the present along with everyone else. In short, if you are not making history, you are history.

There are lessons to learn here and they revolve around both business leadership and its impact on the life cycle of most successful companies.

There are basically three types of leadership mentality: Those who lead by doing what has been done; they are called “bureaucrats”. Those who lead by doing what is being done; they are called “managers.” Those who lead by doing what will be done; they are called “inspirational.”

A new company cannot be successful by doing what established competitors are doing, but by finding a place in the market where the competition is weak or non-existent. A new company secures a foothold in the market, not by doing what others are doing, but by doing what others can’t or won’t do. Companies can go beyond mere success and become iconic game-changers when they offer products and services that create a market that did not previously exist. When that happens, the company for a period of time defines and dominates the market. Be it in the start-up, growth or game-changing phases of a company’s development, inspirational leadership essential.

Once a company has achieved success, it tends to evolve into a phase of overseeing that success. The leadership most identified with this phase is the manager. In the next phase, the company concentrates its efforts in an attempt to protect its success. In the “protect-what-we-have” mode, the bureaucrat emerges. This leads to the final phase in the life cycle of a company which is to be phased-out of the market. The point here is that once a company loses its inspirational leadership or believes that type of leadership is no longer necessary for its success, it begins to slide down the mountain, instead of conquering it.

In the case of Apple, we are seeing in real time what begins to happen when a previously “game-changing” company loses an inspirational leader. Apple has come back from the future and is trapped into competing against others in the present it created, when it was the future. What this means is that under the inspirational leadership of Steve Jobs, when Apple created the iPod, iPhone and iPad it got to the future first, by actually creating it. Who knew we just could not live without a smartphone or iPad until Apple fashioned the future? Apple created a huge market that had not existed and was the only company to serve it. How profitable can a company be if the consumer is more concerned with access to the product, than its price? When customers stand in line to buy a product they didn’t even know they needed. It is the embodiment of the mythical license to print profits.

What Apple did to achieve its success was unconventional. What Apple is doing to preserve its success is conventional; and herein rests the problem. The signs all suggest that Apple is in the managerial phase of leadership; with bureaucrats lurking around the corner. Apple got to the future and created a market that is now being populated by Kindles, Samsung’s Galaxy, Google’s Android and Nokia. Apple is now reacting to competition, rather than dominating it. For the first time in history, Apple was not the first to market when its iPad Mini followed smaller Kindle tablets and Google’s Nexus 7 to market. There is no more profound evidence of the juxtaposition of Apple in the market than to note that the company is now considering ways to cut prices to protect market share. This type of action, moving away from demand, value products, toward price-sensitive commodities is a slippery slope; with margins (if there are any) nowhere near the reported 40 percent that Apple reported last quarter.

All of this leads to the point that if you accept the premise that the future belongs to those who get there first, you can understand the problems that Apple is beginning to encounter. Bureaucrats and managers can’t get to the future first, because they focus on how things were yesterday or how they are today; not how they should be in tim_cookthe future. It is the inspirational leader – Steve Jobs and those of his ilk – who constantly reminisce about the future that Apple now lacks. Apple has become blinded to a future that was once a vision.

The challenge for Tim Cook’s Apple (at right)  – or any company, for that matter – is a difficult one because any number of managers and bureaucrats can be hired, but inspirational leaders must be discovered. It is problematic for a company populated by managers and bureaucrats to discover and accept an inspirational leader, because the mentality of such a leader to reminisce about the future in order to get there first is an anathema to the typical manager or bureaucrat’s experience and approach. The market is apparently unsure that Cook is that kind of inspirational leader.

So what is it that defines this mythical inspirational leader?

Vince Lombardi may have said it best, “Leadership is based on a spiritual quality; the power to inspire, the power to inspire others to follow.” The inspirational leader is passionate – almost to a fault – in the belief that the future just does not just happen, but that it is made. Many have a foreboding attitude when it comes to the future, because they see it as something that creates change that must be reacted to, in order to survive. The inspirational leader welcomes change as a tool to make the future react to it. Most see what has been done and define progress as doing it better. Inspirational leaders learn from what has been done, but define progress as doing what has not been done.

There is often a nostalgia to live in the past, because few are threatened by what they are accustomed to. But the future is something quite different, since we often fear to make changes, especially when what we’ve been doing has been successful. The inspirational leader wants no part of that thinking. He or she lives in the future but acts in the present to paint a vision of the future in a way that allows the followers to reminisce about the future in the same way they reminisce about the past. In so doing, the inspirational leader mitigates the fear of the future. This mobilizes the followers to leave the past behind and bravely work to get to the future first, because the future they create is where they will be most comfortable and successful.

And the Moral of the Story …

It is simple and has been said before, but remains true: The future belongs to those who get there first. When you get to the future first, you make history by determining the future for others. And, when you stop making history, you are history.

It comes down to an analogy of a mature apple tree, producing excellent fruit. The bureaucrat looks at the apple tree and focuses on protecting it and making sure it continues to produce what it has produced in the past. The manager looks at the tree and tries to figure out how to get more and more fruit from the same tree. The inspirational leader recognizes an apple tree can grow only so large and produce only so much fruit. The inspirational leader believes that seeds from the original tree can be planted to grow new trees that in the future will produce new fruit and constantly expand the apple crop.

What Apple needs to do is not to continue to try to get more apples off the same tree, but to get more trees to grow more – and even different – apples, maybe even oranges. This means that Apple needs to get back to the future. If it does not find a way to do so, it will be stuck in the present until it becomes the past.