Over the long weekend I had enough time to read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. Talk about a wonderful read, engrossing from start to finish. It was clear even just early on in the book that Steve was a very flawed individual with many personal demons that chased him throughout his life, and ultimately likely were partly responsible for his untimely death. At the same time, it was those flaws that drove him to do amazing things and ultimately create the most valuable company in the world.
One of the core questions that Isaacson leaves readers with is whether a less flawed Steve Jobs would have been able to accomplish as much as he did. I think the answer to that question lies in the equally mysterious Damascus steel.
If you’re unfamiliar with Damascus steel, it’s a type of steel made in India that eventually found its way to Syria in ancient times. Damascus steel was renowned for both its strength and beauty, with patterns in it that resemble ripples on a lake. While the method of making authentic Damascus steel was lost over four centuries ago, research has shown that what makes it an extraordinary steel wasn’t the iron itself or the forging techniques.
What makes Damascus steel so wonderful and the heart of sword making in the Middle East from the third to the seventeenth centuries was actually impurities in the metal. Vanadium and molybdenum were found in samples of antique Damascus blades that caused the steel to change into Damascus steel. Those impurities caused the signature patterns in the metal and lent it incredible strength and sharpness. Without those impurities, you’d have ordinary steel – strong and resilient, to be sure, but lacking all of the qualities that make Damascus steel what it is.
I’d argue that the same would have been true for Steve Jobs. His obsessive attention to detail, polar reactions to everything with no room for a middle ground, and the ability to simply choose not to believe or pay attention to things he wasn’t focused on made him incredibly difficult to work with. It made him a very poor family man. It made him many more enemies than friends, even if those enemies gave him grudging respect. But it made him Steve Jobs, and it made Apple the dominant technology company of its era, twice.
There are also two lessons I took from Isaacson’s biography. First, you can’t bottle Steve. His experiences, his trials, and his flaws were his alone, and while you could try to be more bold in your work or more detail oriented, you and I will never be Steve Jobs, no matter how hard we try. There will be a great many business managers and leaders who will read Isaacson’s book and conclude that they should be able to achieve 5% of Steve’s greatness by emulating 5% of his personal traits, and it just doesn’t work like that, in the same way that you will not get Damascus steel by obtaining only 5% of the needed impurities. It’s more or less an all-or-nothing deal in both cases.
Second, and I think more important, Steve’s story is ultimately a story of transformation. He was able through skill, hard work, luck, and sheer will to take his personal flaws and transform them into powerful allies that helped him to create what he did. Rather than want to be Steve, ask yourself this: what peculiar flaws and personality traits do you have of your own that you can transform from hindrances into exceptional capabilities?
Perhaps procrastination is in your personal makeup. What would happen if you consciously chose when you would and wouldn’t procrastinate? Certainly, the ability to put off unimportant things forever would vastly increase your productivity, if you could “turn it off” when you faced the important things.
Perhaps bold, “let’s just go do it” is in your personal makeup. What would your life look like if, when facing important decisions, you could forge ahead while your competitors dithered?
How could you turn those traits that you were once scorned and scolded for into the brightest lights of your work?
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