By the time he died on October 5, 2011, Steve Jobs had accomplished just about everything a man of ideas could dream of, and he left his mark by helping to make the world a global village. But perhaps the irony is that for all the credit Jobs receives for revolutionizing the personal computer and mobile communication, by his own admission, he wasn’t that much of a creative genius, just someone who knew how to take something that already existed, and transform it into something much cooler.
Jobs was a lifelong learner. He believed that creativity was about recognizing how a product had been put together, then thinking how that product could be upgraded and improved to create something new. The idea of connecting things was the way Jobs explained how he had mastered personal computers, mobile phones and later, movie animation.
Roots of Creativity
According to a book A Memoir of My Life with Steve Jobs published by Jobs’ former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, it was a 1974 journey to India that helped shape Jobs’ view on creativity. Jobs was struck by the fact that people in India didn’t respect intelligence as much as instinct, and that was a cornerstone of how he would operate when he first created the Macintosh computer, and founded Apple. For Jobs, creativity was most vibrant when it sprang from self-belief, intuition and spontaneity, rather than studied analysis. This type of thinking was germane to how Jobs viewed the personal computer and its applicability as a machine that wasn’t just functional, but reflected something distinct about each user. The trip to India also spurred a lifelong interest in Eastern mystical arts, leading Jobs to embrace Buddhism.
So what did Jobs mean exactly when he talked about creativity and connecting things? Well, it may be instructive to read the entire quote in order to gain context and clarity. In a February 1995 Wired article, Job answered an interview question about the value of well-designed products by saying,
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
In other words, Jobs believed that great products were the result of people who thought about what had come before and what could come next. For example, Jobs looked at the Xerox computer in the early 1980s and thought that he could transform a utilitarian device into a must-have personal appliance. This idea drove the way he designed and marketed the first Apple, which was released in 1984. It also further explains how the 1974 trip to India continued to influence Jobs as he constantly drew from his own experiences about human beings to create products that he felt would appeal to them.
Creativity Through Passion and Innovation
Jobs was famously not a technology nerd, nor was he a computer geek who spent hours writing complex algorithms for operating systems. But he was passionate about the transformative potential of personal computers, and later, of mobile technology. The lesson is that creativity isn’t about technology, it’s about the idea behind why a product was made. In that same vein, innovation is about creating something new from something tried and true. But there has to be a reason behind every innovation, which is why Jobs was such a harsh taskmaster when Apple was testing new products. In 1998, a year after returning to Apple after 12 years in exile, Jobs trimmed the number of products the company sold from 350 to join 10. He explained his philosophy about innovation in a presentation he made that same year in which he said:
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying “no” to 1,000 things.
Jobs understood that innovation wasn’t just about introducing products into the market because there was a demand, it was about creating the demand by offering only a few products that were of high-quality and designed to appeal to the senses. It’s easy to see this belief in practice, as many Apple products are sleek with a design scheme that emphasizes clean, uncluttered lines and space-age appearance. For Jobs, creativity was not just demonstrated in what a company created, it was also evident in the things a company chose not to make.