Steve Jobs by Albert Watson
Steve Jobs by Albert Watson

The individual who has influenced most of my creative thinking is Steve Jobs. He was a rare individual who followed his intuition, focused on making great products, and never compromised his morales and ethics.

He also divided a lot of people, hurt, and pissed off a lot of people. Yet he lived a life true to himself — and has created an enduring creative legacy.

Here are some lessons that Steve Jobs has taught me, and can also teach you:

1. Focus on making great products over profits:

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My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who you hire, who get promoted, and what you discuss in meetings.” – Steve Jobs

Businesses fail when they focus on trying to make profits over great products.

We often fail in life as well when we chase money over doing work that is personally meaningful — and great in our own eyes.

Great profits will follow great products.

If you’re not a “product” person — how can you apply this mode of thinking to your life?

Assignment: Make great things

You can focus on personal greatness in many different forms in your life.

You can focus on making great images (if you’re a photographer), if you’re a writer you can focus on making great articles, books, or sharing great ideas.

If you’re a parent, focus on making great connections with your children. If you’re a manager, make great teamwork your goal.

Don’t let money distract you in life. I’ve found that the most successful people (who become financially wealthy) are the ones who focus on creating great value for others. And through their generosity, hard work ethic, and great final products— money follows.

2. People don’t know what they want (until you show it to them):

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“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ”A faster horse!”’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” – Steve Jobs

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Steve Jobs is to not ask others for good ideas. Rather, you need to be innovative, start from scratch, and come up with new ideas that others haven’t thought of yet.

Easier said than done — right?

That is what makes innovation so difficult. We cannot come up with innovative ideas by comparison or examples. True innovation comes from creating something totally new that isn’t just an incremental improvement.

For example, when Steve Jobs helped make the iPhone — there was nothing like it (almost all ‘smartphones’ had keyboards, the iPhone just used the touch screen). When Steve Jobs made the iPad, it was 10x better than any other tablet on the market, and was one of the most successful consumer products in history.

Assignment: Reason from first principles

If you want to truly create innovative ideas, you need to start from “first principles” (a concept from physics). The basic idea is that you don’t come up with ideas by analogy or comparing it to something else. It means to start off your ideas from a blank slate, and ask yourself fundamental questions about the nature of something.

For example, if you’re going to start a photography project — don’t ask yourself “Has this been done before?” Rather, think if you started the photography project from scratch (and if nobody else ever did it before), how would you do it according to your own personal vision?

For your assignment, question how everyone does everything. Don’t try to do things according to what the public wants, what your audience wants, or what your customers want. Rather — follow your own gut, your own intuition, and try to create beautiful and new things before people think they need it.

You want to give people what they need, not necessarily what they want.

3. Embed humanity into your work:

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The biggest success of Steve Jobs and Apple is how they combined humanity and technology. Humanity without technology is limited. Technology without humanity lacks soul.

Many people don’t know this — but Steve Jobs’ biggest inspiration was Edwin Land of Polaroid. Jobs was greatly inspired by Edwin Land’s presentation style, his dedication to making great products, and innovation.

Jobs talks below about how Edwin Land inspired him, and the importance of combining humanities and science:

“Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There’s something magical about that place. There are a lot of people innovating, and that’s not the main distinction of my career. The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies computers became a way for people to express their creativity. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor.” – Steve Jobs

It is easy for us to get suckered by technology — thinking that technology will solve all our problems. It is easy to think that we can change the world just by knowing how to code, or having technical skills.

Truly great innovation happens when we combine the human soul and tools. That is what helped us succeed as a species.

Great art is about self-expression. And as artists, we should use whatever tools we can to express ourselves.

In the realm of photography, we use the camera to express ourselves. It doesn’t really matter what kind of camera we use — whether it be a digital camera, a film camera, or even a smartphone camera. We just want to use the best tool for us.

Furthermore, I think this is a great lesson because both humanists and technologists can learn from one another.

Great humanists combine technology to their work. And great technologists embed humanity in their work.

Assignment: Augment your skills

If you grew up as a “humanities” person (sociology, history, poetry, writing) and have always been bad at math, science, and technology — focus on building your technical skills. Learn how to code, how to design websites, or learn some basic physics 101 to augment your thinking.

If you grew up as a technology person (engineering, science, math) and sucked at humanities — try to learn more poetry, writing, and painting. See how you can develop the humanist in yourself — and later on combine that with your technical skills.

Personally, whenever I want to learn something outside of my comfort zone (let’s say physics, computer science, or a field I’m unfamiliar with) I google: “[Subject] 101 PDF”. So I will Google: “Physics 101 PDF” and find great information — anything distilled into a PDF is generally better information than just reading a bunch of blog posts or Wikipedia articles.

Down the line you will see by combining your humanities and scientific skills — you will create something truly valuable for humankind.

4. Integrate your software, hardware, and content management:

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One of the biggest innovations that Steve Jobs and Apple did was to integrate software and hardware. Before Apple, most PC manufacturers would only focus on building hardware. They would let third-party individuals create software — which was often not as compatible or buggy with the hardware they produced.

Apple did something radically different — they combined the software, hardware, and content management. This ensured that Apple computers were less buggy, ran more efficiently, and didn’t break as often. Not only that, but Apple computers (and products) were more streamlined, effective, and created great user experiences.

Steve Jobs explains more of his philosophy of integration:

“People pay us to integrate things for them, because they don’t have the time to think about this stuff 24/7. If you have an extreme passion for producing great products, it pushes you to be integrated, to connect your hardware and your software and content management. You want to break new ground, so you have to do it yourself. If you want to allow your products to be open to other hardware or software, you have to give up some of your vision.”

Assignment: Integrate your life

We can use the analogy of “software”, “hardware”, and “content management” in different ways in life.

For example, as a photographer — your “software” can be your creativity when it comes to making images. Your “software” are your project ideas, how you make photographs, and what you make photos of.

Your “hardware” as a photographer can be the gear that you use — whether it be a digital camera, a film camera (35mm, medium-format, large-format), or a smartphone camera.

Your “content management” as a photographer is how you present your work — whether you show it in an exhibition, a book, a PDF, or publish it on social media or your website portfolio.

If you want to achieve a truly innovative vision as a photographer — you need to have control over all three things. You need to have the freedom to figure out what you want to photograph, what camera to shoot it with, and how to publish it.

Don’t give up your freedom, control, or personal vision and outsource it to someone else. True greatness comes from pursuing your individual vision — and bringing it into fruition.

5. Put in the hard work:

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If you want to innovate or call yourself an “entrepreneur” — you need to hustle, hard. The difference between success and failure is often the hard work you decide to put in.

Anything truly great takes a ton of hard work, effort, sweat, tears, and blood. It means putting your soul in your work. It means not cutting corners for additional profits or efficiency. It means not compromising on your vision. Steve Jobs expands this concept below:

“I hate it when people call themselves ‘entrepreneurs’ when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will stand for something a generation or two from now. That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That’s what I want Apple to be.”

Assignment: Push yourself 25% outside of your comfort zone

As a practical assignment — whenever you pursue anything in life, try to push yourself 25% outside of your comfort zone. That 25% is decided by you.

For example, when it comes to making photographs, I always try to make 25% more photos than I think I need to.

When it comes to physical exercise, when I’m doing pushups and feeling like I’m going to collapse — I push myself to do 25% more pushups (I find this is where my biggest gains come from).

When it comes to my writing or personal work — I try to improve my work by 25% everytime I do it.

Of course not everything I do will always be 25% better. But it is a constant reminder for me to push myself harder, and not settle.

You can apply this in many different ways in life — push yourself to be a 25% better father or mother, a 25% better partner, or a 25% more focused artist.

Determine what “25% better” means to you — and don’t forget to put in the hard work.

6. Never stop innovating:

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The moment you stop innovating, you start dying. Innovation is our lifeblood — which keeps us fresh, motivated, and inspired. Innovation is what pushes society forward— and improves the lives of everybody.

We need to never stop innovating, as long as we live. It is easy to get comfortable and cozy with whatever we’re doing, and settling for the status quo. What we need to do instead is to kill our past selves, forget what we’ve done in the past, and see everyday as a new challenge. We need to think of how we can always improve ourselves and others — and have the confidence to try something new.

Steve Jobs shares the story of Bob Dylan, one of his idols— and how he alienated a lot of people by innovating. But how it was necessary:

“You always have to keep pushing to innovate. Dylan could have sung protest songs forever and probably made a lot of money, but he didn’t. He had to move on, and when he did, by going electric in 1965, he alienated a lot of people. His 1966 Europe tour was his greatest. He would come on and do a set of acoustic guitar, and the audiences loved him. Then he brought out what became The Band, and they would all do an electric set, and the audience sometimes booed. There was one point where he was about to sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and someone from the audience yells ‘Judas!’ And Dylan then says, ‘Play it fucking loud!’ And they did. The Beatles were the same way. They kept evolving, moving, refining their art. That’s what I’ve always tried to do– keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.

Assignment: Carte blanche

The French have a phrase called “carte blanche” — which literally means blank paper. It means that whenever you’re trying to be creative and start something new, you need to start with a blank slate. A blank sheet of white paper. You have to get rid of your baggage of the past. You need to forget what you’ve done — and you need to think forward — how you can do something new.

It means having courage to listen to your own heart, and possibly alienating those around you. Especially your most loyal fans.

When it comes to your photography, if you started all over again — what would you do differently? Would you keep shooting the same subject matter? Would you keep using your same camera? Would you publish your photos the same way that you do?

Think of how you can refresh, restart, or reformat your life. Start clean, without any mental baggage. And see how well you can innovate in your life and art.

7. Steal great ideas:

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“Picasso had a saying– ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’– and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” – Steve Jobs

There is no such thing as “originality” — we’ve all borrowed ideas from others. That is how humanity works. We take the ideas of others, but build upon it. We improve the ideas of others, and contribute these new remixes to the rest of humanity.

If you see a good idea, don’t be afraid to steal it. What you don’t want to do is just to photocopy or copy-and-paste an idea. What you want to do is to bring your own interpretation or remix to the table.

If you approach a piece of art or a concept or an idea, how can you add your own flavor to it? How would you change it? What would you remove, add, or move around?

Assignment: Blatantly steal great ideas

As artists, we are afraid to “copy” others, or “steal” ideas.

My suggestion: see something you like, and blatantly steal the idea, but see how you can add your own spin on it.

For example, find the work of a photographer you really like or admire. Then for a month or year, deliberately try to copy their images as well as you can. Don’t hide the fact, be their copy-cat.

But as time goes on, see how you photograph differently from the master you’re copying. What is unique about the images you make? Is it the colors you’re using? The approach? The way you talk to your subjects, or don’t talk to them?

It is impossible to copy someone forever — even if you wanted to make the same exact photos as someone else, you couldn’t do it.

So don’t worry about copying great artists and ideas. Just remember, to add your own interpretation, take, and just be you.

8. Make your products as beautiful as possible:

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There is a lot of ugly stuff being made in the world. We all have our own personal aesthetics for things in life. So whenever you create art, try to make your art as beautiful as humanly possible. Use your own barometer as a gauge— don’t settle for second-best with yourself.

One of the biggest lessons that Steve Jobs learned from his father was to make everything as beautiful as possible — even things that people didn’t see. That is the sign of a true artist and artisan:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

Assignment: Only show your best work

Many companies and artists often cut corners. But you shouldn’t.

Often it is difficult to achieve perfection in your art. After all, there is no objective measure for “perfection.”

However I suggest for you to only show your best work, to not cut corners, and for you to create the best possible work of art possible.

In photography, we can’t control how a photograph will look. We can’t control the light, how people look, or what gestures they have. But we have the control of what photos to share (and what photos not to share). So only share your best. Make each image count.

9. Contribute back to society and the flow of life:

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As humans, we build upon the innovation and ideas of others. To be a creative being is to take what we’ve learned, and to help innovate and push society forward. It means to not hoard what we’ve learned, but to share it openly with others.

We need to be appreciative of those who have come from before us, and to also contribute back to others.

Steve Jobs shared what drove him in life:

“What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about dying to express something in the only way that most of us know how– because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.”

Assignment: Appreciate and share

It is easy for us to lose appreciation for all those great artists and people who have come from before us. It is easy for us to take credit for all the work that we’ve done, without giving acknowledgement from those we learned from.

As a practice, try to think of all the individuals in your life who have taught you, inspired you, and motivated you. Write all their names in a notebook, on your blog, or in your Evernote. Think of how each of these individuals have helped you get to where you are. Also write down the list of influential artists, photographers, or philosophers who have influenced you greatly. Give them thanks in your mind, and also consider how you can continue to help others.

Think of how you can share your personal learnings with others. Teach others. Share your ideas on your blog or on social media. Give away your secrets. Contribute to society and humanity. Don’t hoard your talents to yourself.

With appreciation for those who have come before us, and by sharing our knowledge with others — we improve society and the human race.

10. Don’t look back:

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“Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.” – Steve Jobs

It is easy for us (once we’ve reached a certain point in our lives, or at a certain age) to get stuck in old ways of thinking. Steve Jobs says we create grooves in a record, and once we’ve etched these patterns, it is difficult for us to escape.

But if we want to truly remain artists for the rest of our lives— we need to not look back so much. We need to learn how to throw away everything we’ve done in the past, and to keep our “beginner’s mind” or “child’s mind”:

“If you want to live your life in a creative way as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.” – Steve Jobs

It is hard. Really hard. The more “success” you gain as an artist, person, or individual — the world will try to put you inside a little box. And you need to work on never becoming trapped in that box — not to become trapped by the image others have of you:

“The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.” – Steve Jobs

Assignment: Re-invent yourself

David Bowie is another great artist who continually evolved and re-invented himself in his career. He never let his past self hold his future self back.

How could you re-invent yourself in life, without any of your past prejudices, theories, or thoughts? How can you always stay fresh?

If you’re a photographer, treat every new photo project like a movie director. What plot will you have? What story will you have? What actors will you have? What camera or film will you use? How would you approach this project differently?

Always stay refreshed, and you will never die creatively.

11. Go the extra mile:

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It is easy for us to just do the bare minimum. But great artists push themselves to go the extra mile. To think of the additional value they can create with others. To provide extra service, to provide additional innovations, or to just put in extra time and effort into what they do.

Steve Jobs says the best way to go the extra mile is to have the right motivations. Whenever you are creating something, imagine like you’re creating it for yourself:

“The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.” – Steve Jobs

Assignment: Go the extra mile

How can you go the “extra mile” in your life?

Can you spend more time with your kids? Can you spend more time with your loved ones? Could you provide a little better service to your customers? Can you put a little more effort into your workouts? Can you be a little more focused and effortful when making images or making words?

What is that little addition you can add? It often makes all the difference.

12. Don’t worry about cannibalizing yourself

“If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” – Steve Jobs

Many of us are afraid to share our secrets, to do things that might harm us in the future, and to make ourselves vulnerable. After all, it is a self-preservation thing. We don’t want to die. We want to protect ourselves because of fear.

But the problem is in today’s society— if you focus on self-preservation too much, someone will eat you.

In Steve Jobs and Apple’s case— they made the iPhone which they knew would cannibalize iPod sales. After all, the iPhone had all the functions of the iPod. Why would anyone buy an iPod when they could have the same features in an iPhone?

Yet that is the necessary step that Steve Jobs and Apple had to do. They knew that they couldn’t just sit on their butts and collect profits off a product forever. They knew to innovate, they need to create new products, which might harm their current profits, but would help them in the long run.

Assignment: Cannibalize yourself

How are ways you can cannibalize yourself — hurt yourself in the short term, for a long-term gain?

It might mean giving away all your secrets and information for free, knowing that people might pay you good money for consulting, advice, or workshops in the future (the ‘business model’ that I ended up adopting).

It might mean creating new technology and products which will make your past products redundant.

It might mean realizing that the job you’re currently doing right now might go extinct in the future — and studying a new field to keep yourself relevant.

Don’t be afraid. Have courage in yourself. Know that the more you aim to help others, the more you will help yourself in the long run.

Success breeds on killing your past self.

13. Remember you will die soon (so follow your heart):

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Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything– 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. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs

The last 5-10 years of Steve Jobs’ life was the most productive in terms of creating new products and innovations at Apple. It was partly because he knew he was dying — he discovered that he had cancer.

If we lived a life where we knew that we would be dead soon — how much harder would we focus on our creative and meaningful work? What distractions would we omit? What worries or concerns would we remove from our egos?

Do what you love. Follow your passion. Listen to your own inner-voice. Don’t give any credence to your detractors. Don’t listen to the critics. Know that you only have one life to live— why live it according to the opinions of others?

Assignment: You’ll be dead in 10 years

I heard a great quote from Tony Robbins: “Many people over-estimate what they can achieve in a year, but under-estimate what they can achieve in a decade.”

A fun assignment — imagine yourself dead in 10 years. How would you decide to live your life? 10 years is enough time to do something great. The secret is being focused, and not becoming distracted.

You don’t necessarily need to quite your day job. But it means to dedicate all the free time you have on your own tasks. To focus all your creative energy on your personal projects that bring you meaning. To think of how you can best help empower yourself and others.

What will your 10-year project be? Write some ideas down, and vividly imagine yourself dying 10 years from now.

Don’t delay. Start now.