Steve Jobs and the Power of Ignorance

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t.” (Game of Thrones) (1)

Steve Jobs knew too much in the first iteration of his career. That is part of why he failed, according to biographer and longtime tech journalist, Brent Schlender. Schlender is the author of Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader – a book I highly recommend (and, more importantly, so do Tim Cook, Ed Catmull, and others who worked closely with Jobs).

After founding Apple in 1976, and launching the successful Apple II a few years later, Jobs became an all-knowing leader. And subsequently stumbled.

How?

He took over the development of the Apple III and ran it into the ground.

Then he took over the Macintosh project, where he showed brilliant leadership yet launched it before it was fully capable. He then showed no interest in improving it. This approach led to dismal sales in the first year of that promising machine.

In 1985 – a year after the Macintosh launch, he was demoted. He quit instead of accepting that public and humiliating demotion. Then, in 1986, he was pushed off the Board.

He sold all his stock in Apple save one share and then tripped again.

Out of a sense of revenge and to prove himself smarter than those dummies at Apple who fired him, Jobs started Next, which turned out not to be next.

His need to show everyone at Next that he knew everything and to, according to Schlender, “weigh in on 20,000 decisions” slowed everything down and doomed the company.

“[when he started Next] …he acted as if he knew everything – from payroll and engineering to marketing and manufacturing…he was like a teenager. [2]”

By the late 1980s, Jobs’ all knowing teenager-like antics made him irrelevant.

So what happened? How did Jobs go from irrelevant to 21st century icon?

In the 1980s, Jobs bought a small graphics division from George Lucas that he turned into an independent private company known as Pixar. And Pixar was run by an extraordinarily smart leader, Ed Catmull, who was never afraid to embrace his own ignorance. Catmull never needed to be the smartest person in the room.

Catmull and the team at Pixar unintentionally provided the road for Jobs back to Apple and eventually to the iPhone.

How?

Catmull taught Jobs how to embrace his own ignorance and learn again. He showed Jobs how to learn from employees and give great creative leaders room to make decisions. He showed him how to learn from customers (including the children of friends who watched early versions of Toy Story). This is the Jobs I wrote about in my book, Customers Included.

Jobs took over Apple a second time in the late 90s when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy and he brought those Pixar-inspired lessons with him. This second time at Apple he no longer needed to be the smartest person in the room. He could still be brash and bold – but without being the all-knowing petulant, impatient ‘star’ of the first go-round.

You are ignorant. I am ignorant. Steve Jobs had some ignorance.

We are all ignorant – of at least some things.

We live in a complex world where it’s impossible to know everything.

The old cliche – knowledge is power – is no longer true.

Ignorance is power sounds terrible but has more truth than you might recognize.

We have built the modern world with ignorance, at least according to historian Yuval Harari of Hebrew University. Harari argues persuasively in another book I recommend, Sapiens, that embracing ignorance is what powered the Scientific Revolution, which in turn powered the Enlightenment, and drove the birth of Capitalism.

Harari uses a very interesting verb – discover – to describe what happened. He says the Scientific Revolution got underway 500 years ago because early scientists discoveredignorance.

Here he’s quoted in an EconTalk interview with host Russ Roberts.

“…the most important discovery of the scientific revolution was the discovery of ignorance–of the fact that there are many important questions which we  don’t know the answer to… [3]”

I agree.

That’s why I started the Collaborative Gain Councils 15 years ago. Because wise leaders know what they know and what they don’t know – and need the advice and counsel of fellow leaders to augment their own knowledge.

And to bring the point back to the focus of this article – by embracing the limits of his knowledge, Steve Jobs built the most valuable company in the world.

To survive and prosper in the 21st century – to become more powerful, more innovative, and have more impact (and be happier) – we need to keep growing and developing. And we cannot grow if we cannot learn – and we cannot learn if we act as know-it-alls who attempt to hide what we do not know because we do not want to acknowledge a certain amount of ignorance.

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Phil Terry is Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, a private leadership community he started and has run for 15 years with hundreds of companies like Apple, Airbnb, Google, Lyft, and Warby Parker.

Phil helps leaders learn how to learn from each other, their employees, and their customers. He also founded the Reading Odyssey, for readers and scholars, and Slow Art Day for art lovers and museums. Previously, he was CEO of Creative Good for 15 years, where he taught companies how to listen to customers, and on the startup team of one of the first companies bought by Amazon back in the 1990s. He’s the co-author of Customers Included and has given hundreds of talks. If you want to invite Phil to speak, get in touch.

  1. Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode, 12:23 – Young King Tommen being coached by his grandfather, Tywin Lannister.
  2. Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader, Audible version, Chapter 4, 28:10.
  3. “Yuval Harari on Sapiens” EconTalk interview, October 15, 2015, 45:19.

Note: If you have read all the way down to the bottom – then you get a special free prize. I will send a free Kindle copy of Becoming Steve Jobs to the first 10 readers who ask me for it (send me a LinkedIn email if you like).