Jobs, Wozniak, and Obama: Saints and Dreamers

Wednesday Mar 25th 2009 by Rob Enderle
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A reflection on how various public figures are dealing with the current economic downturn.

I watch few reality shows but my guilty pleasure is watching Dancing with the Stars. This year one of the truly great men in the technology world, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, is being showcased on the show and, I think, he’s showcasing how we all should live in these difficult times.

But while Woz is waltzing, we are clearly missing a far more important Apple figure, Steve Jobs. The last two solid releases from Apple pretty much got yawns as a result of no one being able to wrap the new Apple products in magic.

This got me thinking about how few people there have been that could create dreams we could aspire to. Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were men that drove change by creating dreams that lasted longer than they did.

I think many of us hoped Obama would be in that class but he is drifting closer to Jimmy Carter at the moment, another man with dreams, but unfortunately not one that could get us to dream with him.

Let's talk about the importance of saints and dreamers this week.

Steve Wozniak, the Patron Saint of Technology

I don't think there is anyone in the world that I personally admire for how they have led their life than Steve Wozniak. It's not because he helped create Apple but because he is known for his generosity, his kindness, and his willingness to put himself on the line to help children and those less fortunate than he is.

When he found out that Steve Jobs had stolen from him in the early years he didn't hire an attorney, he didn't bluster or threaten, he was simply deeply disappointed. When he felt that the other founding Apple employees were getting a raw deal with regard to options he put a huge chunk of his own options back into the pool so these employees could better share in Apple's success.

Contrast this behavior with what we are seeing on Wall Street, where rampant greed and the desire to get rich regardless of who is hurt in the process seem to rule the day.

Watching Woz perform on Dancing with the Stars has been painful. It is clear that, like many of us (and I include myself), he spends too much time with toys like his Segway scooters than outside exercising. But he put his heart into the effort and in all of the coverage of his training he appears to be working very hard, sweating, and complaining less than many – even though it’s clear he’s often in a lot of pain. I didn't think he was ever going to make progress.

However I watched him on the 23rd and while he was no Fred Astaire, he was vastly improved from the prior week, even though he had been injured during training.

Yet the judges who had been kind to him before turned nasty. It was as if that now that he was making progress they wanted to destroy him because he had made their positions that he wouldn't improve start to look foolish. I wondered if they had side bets on how long he would last.

Their criticism was scathing and, to my ear, unreasonably cruel given who he was, the fact he was injured, and that he had actually made good progress. Yet Steve never flinched, never said a bad thing about them, and smiled throughout as if he had a private joke. That joke is that when he goes home and looks into the mirror he sees Steve Wozniak, one of the best people who have ever lived; they see a bunch of dancers past their prime who tried and failed to tarnish a great man's star.

Watching Steve makes me want to be better and that is an important example for all of us this year. Most of us will likely have people attack us and try to tear us down, but if we can keep Woz's example in our hearts and minds it will be our attackers who are left looking foolish.

And, I think the most important part is to simply have fun. If we don't let anyone take the sparkle out of our eyes or the smile from our hearts we win. And, it is all about winning.

Obama, In Search of a Dream

It is unfortunate that there are so few people who can inspire us to do amazing things. I mentioned Steve Wozniak because he sets an example I wish I'd learn to emulate more myself. The other Steve, Steve Jobs, has a rare skill as well and that is the skill to get people to dream. It remains ironic that that skill was never used for more than pitching products, given his pitch to John Sculley.

When Steve was recruiting John he compared selling Pepsi to selling colored water and selling Macs to changing the world. Jobs actually had the ability to change the world, he just never rose to do it.

Obama, during the election, showcased a similar ability but now when he wants to sell the nation on his dream he is stumbling badly. Part of this is because he is executing reactively and not able to get ahead of the mess and drive change, but part is that he hasn't crafted a dream and got us to dream that dream with him.

The last Depression was ended by the Second World War and people were willing to make great sacrifices in order to prevent the Axis powers from taking over the world. People gave up driving, gave up new appliances, eating out, and women went to work in factories to support the effort. I would hope we could come up with something we could all get behind that would be less likely to end the human race than a war. But I’m increasingly concerned that there are no strong alternatives.

We need a Dream, short of war, something we can all work towards and feel good about sacrificing for in order to pull out of this mess and, right now we seem to be dreamless. People aren't going to sacrifice to save bankrupt banks that were run by rich greedy executives. They don't want to work to own bankrupt auto companies that forgot how to build products people actually want (and Congress will probably make that problem worse). And I'm sure we all are getting sick of politicians who live a life of near royalty being critical of the luxuries others have.

To recreate Apple, Steve Jobs did several things. He cut the company's complexity down to something he could manage and improve and he built dreams around the products that initially sucked, and then built products that people could dream about.

Obama's mistake is that his reach exceeds his grasp and doing lots of things poorly probably won't end well. In addition, the massive complexity isn't allowing him to build dreams around anything that he is doing and he is bleeding support like water as a result. If something isn't done he will likely lose Congress in two years and his job in four.

The US desperately needs a dream it can aspire to. Without it the current effort will fall short of the nation's needs and expectations. We need a vision of Camelot to justify the real sacrifices we will have to make. Without that vision, our focus drifts and so too our ability to fix the financial, ecological, and physical problems we now face.

Steve Jobs can't be around and I find I miss him. I also miss the visionary Barack Obama that we had before the election, and hope he too comes back before the new guy gets voted out of office. We need a dream.

Wrapping Up

The US, and I think much of the world, needs to be able to dream about a better tomorrow in order to build one. Part of that is fixing a lot of what is wrong in this world and part of it is emulating truly great people like Steve Wozniak.

Saints and dreams, we need more of both and it is interesting that this takes us back to Apple's founders as examples of both how to live and how to create dreams.

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