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Steve Jobs is widely considered to be a genius, but everyone can learn a thing or two from his tactics.
Jobs faced many obstacles to get Apple and Pixar off the ground. But he had a unique way of crafting his own reality, a “distortion field” he’d use to persuade people that his personal beliefs were actually facts, which is how he pushed his companies forward.
He also used a blend of manipulative tactics to ensure his victories, particularly in boardroom meetings with some of the most powerful company executives in the world.
This guide is designed to teach you how to get what you want in life, or your career, using examples from Jobs’ life, many of which were detailed in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple cofounder.
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Pitch with passion. People can be influenced by strong displays of emotion
Pitching was a key part of Jobs’ repertoire, and it should be part of yours, too. The process of selling — yourself, or a product — is the key to getting others to buy into your ideas.
Before Apple launched iTunes in 2001, Jobs met with dozens of musicians in the hopes of corralling record labels into going along with the iTunes plan. One of the people Jobs pitched to was prominent trumpet player Wynton Marsalis.
Marsalis said Jobs talked for two hours straight.
“He was a man possessed,” he said. “After awhile, I started looking at him and not the computer, because I was so fascinated with his passion.”
Jobs also pitched ideas to his ad team with a similar passion to “ensure that almost every ad they produced was infused with his emotion.” The resulting commercials, like the “ 1984” ad and theiPod silhouette ads, helped Apple become much more than just a computer company.
Being brutally honest will help you build a strong following
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple for his second stint in 1997, he immediately got to work trying to invigorate the company he started, which was suffering from too many products and too little direction.
Jobs summoned Apple’s top employees to the auditorium, and, wearing shorts and sneakers, got up on stage and asked everyone to tell him “what’s wrong with this place.”
After some murmurings and bland responses, Jobs cut everyone off. “It’s the products! So what’s wrong with the products?” Again, more murmurs. Jobs shouted, “The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!”
People would buy into Jobs’ ideas because he was always earnest about what he said. As he later told his biographer (emphasis ours): “I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest. I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right. That’s the culture I tried to create. We are brutally honest with each other, and anyone can tell me they think I am full of s–t and I can tell them the same… That’s the ante for being in the room: You’ve got to be able to be super honest.”
Steve Jobs had an incredible work ethic. Jobs told his biographer that when he returned to Apple in 1996, he worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, since he was still also leading Pixar’s operations. He worked tirelessly, and suffered from kidney stones. But he insisted on motivating both companies by consistently showing up and pushing people to make the best products possible, and they respected him for it.
Disarm people with seduction and flattery
Whether they’re working for you, or you’re working for them, people continually seek approval for their actions — so they respond very well to affection.
And if you keep giving it to them, they’ll eventually crave it from you. From Isaacson’s biography (emphasis ours):
“Jobs could seduce and charm people at will, and he liked to do so. People such as (former Apple CEOs) Amelio and Sculley allowed themselves to believe that because Jobs was charming them, it meant that he liked and respected them. It was an impression that he sometimes fostered by dishing out insincere flattery to those hungry for it. But Jobs could be charming to people he hated just as easily as he could be insulting to people he liked.“
Claim all the good ideas are yours — and if you’re reversing your position, get behind the new idea with full force. Memories of the past can be easily manipulated
Steve Jobs wasn’t right all the time, but he was a master at convincing people he was. So how did he do it? He stood firmly in one position, and if your position was actually better than his, he wouldn’t just acknowledge it: He’d adopt your position as his own, which would throw you off balance.
Bud Tribble, a former Mac engineer, had this to say in Jobs’ biography (emphasis ours):
“Just because he tells you something that is awful or great, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll feel that way tomorrow. If you tell him a new idea, he’ll usually tell you that he thinks it’s stupid. But then, if he actually likes it, exactly one week later, he’ll come back to you and propose your idea to you, as if he thought of it.“
An example: When Apple decided to open retail stores for its products, Jobs’ retail SVP Ron Johnson came up with the idea of a “Genius Bar,” which would be staffed “with the smartest Mac people.” At first, Jobs called the idea crazy. “You can’t call them geniuses. They’re geeks,” he said. “They don’t have the people skills to deliver on something called the genius bar.” The next day, Apple’s general counsel was told to trademark the name “Genius Bar.”
Make decisions quickly and definitively. You can (usually) always change things later
When it came to making new products, Apple rarely considered studies, surveys, and research. It was also rare for a major decision to take several months; Jobs tended to get bored easily and was quick to go with his gut.
In the case of the first iMacs, Jobs immediately decided Apple would release the new computers in a rainbow of candy colors.
Jony Ive, Apple’s chief of design, said “in most places that decision would have taken months. Steve did it in a half hour.“
On the same computer, iMac engineer Jon Rubinstein tried to argue that the iMac should come with a CD tray; but Jobs detested CD trays and he really wanted a high-end slot drive. On that particular decision, Jobs was wrong — burning music could only be accomplished on CD trays, and as that trend took off, the first round of iMacs were left behind. But since Jobs was able to make quick decisions, the first iMacs shipped on time, and the second-generation desktops included the CD drive that could rip and burn music, which was the necessary peg Apple needed to launch iTunes and the iPod.
Don’t wait to fix problems. Fix them now
When Jobs was working with Pixar on “Toy Story,” which would be the first feature-length film created entirely with 3D animation, the first iteration of Woody the cowboy had gradually turned into a jerk, mainly through script edits handed down by Disney. But Jobs refused to let Disney, one of the biggest companies in the world, ruin Pixar’s original story.
“If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later,” Jobs said. “That’s what other companies do.”
Jobs insisted that Disney give the reins back to Pixar, and in the end, Woody became a very likeable and thee-dimensional character (no pun intended) in “Toy Story,” which went on to be a monumental success.
Another example: When Jobs was designing the first Apple Store, his retail VP Ron Johnson woke up in the middle of a night before a big meeting with an excruciating thought: They had organized the stores completely wrong. Apple had previously organized the stores by the types of products being sold, but Johnson realized Apple needed to organize the store based around what people might want to do with those products.
Johnson told Jobs his epiphany the next morning, and after a brief eruption from Jobs, the Apple CEO told all who attended that day’s meeting that Johnson was absolutely right, and they needed to redo the entire layout, which delayed the planned rollout by 3-4 months. “We’ve only got one chance to get it right,” Jobs said.
There are two ways to deal with problematic people: Either address them head on …
Jobs often saw the world through binary terms: “A person was either a hero or a bozo, a product was either amazing or s–t.” He wanted Apple to be a company of “A players,” which meant regularly cutting B and C players, or pushing them with great fervor — bullying them, to some extent — to become A players.
Before Apple launched the Macintosh, one of the engineers charged with building a mouse that could easily move the cursor in every direction — not just up/down and left/right — told Bill Atkinson, one of the early Apple employees who developed graphics for the Mac, that there was “no way to build such a mouse commercially.” After Jobs heard about the complaint over dinner, Atkinson arrived at work the next day only to discover Jobs had fired the engineer. The first words said by the engineer’s replacement were, “I can build the mouse.”
… Or “follow the line of least involvement” and ignore them entirely
Jobs did not like overly complex issues, especially if they required him to make accommodations. So on occasion, he would become totally aloof. As Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson said, “Jobs would go silent and ignore situations that made him uncomfortable.”
Jobs used this tactic, which was extremely effective, on several occasions: When Apple’s then-CEO Gil Amelio asked what role he wanted to play in the company after he rejoined via the NeXT acquisition — Jobs couldn’t say “I want your job,” after all — and when he wasn’t sure how to deal with his estranged daughter Lisa.
Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Jobs’ daughter Lisa, described this tactic to Jobs biographer (again, emphasis ours):
“There was a community of people who wanted to preserve his Woodside house due to its historical value, but Steve wanted to tear it down and build a home with an orchard. Steve let that house fall into so much disrepair and decay over a number of years that there was no way to save it. The strategy he used to get what he wanted was to simply follow the line of least involvement and resistance. So by his doing nothing on the house, and maybe even leaving the windows open for years, the house fell apart. Brilliant, no?”
Strike when the iron’s hot, and strike hard
Success usually tricks people into thinking they can stop working; Jobs had a much different point of view. When his big bet on Pixar paid off, and the company’s first movie “Toy Story” was a huge success with critics and the box office, Jobs decided to take the company public.
Investment bankers said it couldn’t happen, especially after Pixar had hemorrhaged money for five years prior. Even John Lasseter, Pixar’s creative head, told Jobs he should wait until after Pixar’s second film. But Jobs insisted.
“Steve overruled me and said we needed the cash so we could put up half the money for our films and renegotiate the Disney deal,” Lasseter told Jobs’ biographer.
And that’s exactly what happened. Pixar held its IPO one week after “Toy Story” opened in theaters, and it was a wild success: It exceeded Netscape as the biggest IPO of 1995, and more importantly, it meant Pixar no longer needed to be dependent on Disney to finance its movies. Suddenly, Disney, with its flailing animation department, needed Pixar, instead of the other way around. The Mickey Mouse company would later realize this fact, and pay $7.4 billion to acquire Pixar — effectively making Jobs the biggest shareholder of Disney, keeping Pixar independent, and also saving Disney’s once-great animation department in the process.