Steve Jobs and America

I’m lucky in that I get to work pretty closely with Apple at the USC Annenberg innovation Lab. So if I have anything to add to the reams of copy written this morning about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as CEO of Apple it is this: “Culture eats strategy for lunch, everyday.” That’s a saying you hear around Apple a lot and it is one that needs to be understood in the halls of Congress, in other executive suites and in the society in general. Apple is the most innovative organization in the world, not because it has a strategy of innovation, but because it has a culture of innovation.

From my vantage point that culture has two elements: reward risk and marry science to art. In the long succession of hit products in the last decade, it’s hard to remember that Steve Jobs had some epic failures early in his career. Anyone remember the Lisa or the Newton? Both were total flops, but the Lisa morphed into the Mac and one could argue that the dream of the Newton ultimately was realized in the I Pad. So the culture rewards both risk, failure and the lessons learned from both. And then there is the marriage of science and art, at which Steve Jobs and his team excelled beyond his competitors. There is a bad tendency in this country to think our “innovation deficit” lies in what policy makers call STEM (science,technology, engineering and math). But Jobs understands that the magic formula is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). It is the basis of what we teach at The innovation Lab and it is the core of the Apple brand. Steve’s obsessive belief in the role of the artist goes way beyond his early fascination with typography. What makes each of his products so thrilling is that they are aesthetically pleasing just to look at, never mind how cool they are to operate.

So here are my take aways from Steve’s departure. We better start building a culture of innovation all over this country. That means we have to let lots of experiments happen at the state and city level in order to start putting people back to work. Some of them will fail, but hopefully we will all find the best practices quickly. In congress, they better stop thinking about strategy every morning and start thinking about culture. And in our schools we better keep teaching the arts and not just concentrate on math and science. As to the continuing success of Apple, I have no doubt. Because innovation was never a top down strategy, but rather a bottom-up culture, Apple will thrive. Steve’s vision will be missed, but he embedded the culture throughout the organization.

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19 Responses to Steve Jobs and America

  1. Alex Bowles says:

    That STEM / STEAM distinction is really on the money.

    I maintain an abiding anger at the awfulness of my high-school math education. It’s aimed not just the teachers who found nothing beautiful in the subject, but at the curriculum designers, who seem to have gone out of their way to make the subjects as dry, as mechanistic, and as resistant to curiosity as humanly possible. Add to this a broader (and much deeper) failure that takes the form of strict compartmentalization between subjects, and you remove the slightest chance that someone may find a spark in the course of “unrelated” classwork.

    Within this financially well-endowed but intellectually impoverished environment, the “best” students were not the ones who loved math. They were the ones who correctly identified the path of least resistance, did what was required for the sake of acceptable marks, then put it all behind them as quickly and as coldly as possible.

    My own cynical view changed entirely when I got to college, where the math curriculum started with Euclid, which we read in the original Greek (something that took serious interdisciplinary coordination on the part of curriculum designers). The thing that struck everybody was the extraordinary beauty of these proofs. From a structural perspective, they had the elegance of perfectly constructed plots, each one resolving when it reached the point of self-evident surety. That fundamental clarity – combined with the irreducible simplicity that produced it – was a revelation. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?!” I kept wondering.

    To get a sense of what I was discovering, see this short film by Cristobal Vila. It’s called Nature by Numbers and it does a wonderful job in conveying the delight that the subject is capable of delivering.

    That sense of (narrowly averted) deprivation only deepened when we started recognizing the same structural properties at the heart of rhetoric by Cicero, or arias by Bach. Indeed, you begin to see mathematics as a master art that informs any other type of expression that relies on the aesthetic response. That’s why you study this stuff – not because (as one particularly oblivious high-school teacher said) “because this is what’s on the test.” I mean, here’s a guy who was so disconnected from the subject that he was unashamed to use circular logic in a class that was all about logic. And there was nothing exceptional about this. Indeed, it represented the culture flawlessly.

    So how do we fix this disconnect? I think we start by getting past the Mary Poppins attitude that treats aesthetics as the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, which simultaneously patronizes students while degrading the subject. It gets worse in that idiot administrators will always point out that you’re really giving kids two different things, and that, when push comes to shove (which is always does) only one of those things is a necessity. Credentials aside, they’re too uneducated to realize that the beauty in art and music isn’t separate from math, it is math. It’s the front fucking door. But once they’ve convinced themselves that it’s just the trim, they can tell themselves that stripping it off is okay when it’s time “to get back to basics.”

    This is so catastrophically wrong. As far as education is concerned, the beauty connecting math, music, physics, and language is the most basic thing there is. Getting rid of that is like boarding up all the doors and windows, then wondering why the house you’ve got seems completely uninviting. To be fair, what passes for liberal arts education also has a lot to answer for. Having shirked anything ‘hard’, it’s turned literature, language, and philosophy into a mush of spineless jelly which (unsurprisingly) is constantly having to prove its relevance in a perpetually losing battle. If the ‘soft’ side has lost all interest in the meticulously structured, it shouldn’t be surprised to find itself being marginalized in return.

    The think that Jobs got absolutely right was breaking free of this lose / lose cycle by recognizing that two sides of the same coin are – inseparably – one thing. Folks who think his retirement means the end of Apple simply don’t understand that when people really internalize this notion, it sticks deeply, and for the rest of their lives. They’re fine for now, and will be for years to come. Like the rest of society, the thing they really need to worry about is the next generation.

  2. Beautifully put, Jon. It echoes sentiments made by Fred Wilson in his blogpost on Science and Art:

    As someone who has taught public high school in Los Angeles and in classrooms in China, I know the power of the practical application of risk taking and experimentation (science) mixed with creativity and unbridled expression (art).

    After recently finishing a tech incubator in New York (, I have come to realize that tech spaces are the most ideal learning atmospheres. They stress collaboration over competition, they have practical objectives rather than theoretical assignments, and they allow bottom up cultures to facilitate and mentor growth rather than demand it.

    Steve Jobs showed us what the future should be. In a blog post I made back in July called “Apple Seeds”, I attempted to explain Apple’s success through Steve Job’s ingenuity and fearlessness:

    In the recently published, “I Am John Galt”, authors Luksin and Greta compare Steve Jobs with Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark. You believe that Steve Jobs instilled a culture of innovation in his company, but now that he’s gone is that enough to keep Apple water tight against the greed, corruption, and stagnation that seems to have crippled the rest of our country?

    We must believe so if we want to ever see the future that Steve Jobs always had inside of his mind.

  3. Alex Bowles says:


    It’s worth remembering the Howard Roark was a bastardized version of Frank Lloyd Wright. When Rand – who meant to flatter Wright – wanted to meet the man himself, he refused, wanting nothing to do with her whatsoever. He found her impression both callous and appalling. He found the idea that his fictional representations would destroy his own building was especially revolting – and fictional in the extreme. Indeed, his struggles with the Guggenheim show him responding to a situation not unlike the one Rand dreamed up in a way that was the exact opposite of what his fictional counterpart elected to do. His creative and theatrical handling of skeptical building code enforcers who wanted to nix his design for the dendriform columns in the Johnson Wax building was similarly distinct from the vindictive rage of Roark.

    If Rand’s reading of one actual iconoclast was so far off the mark, I can’t imagine how much value her work has in illuminating the nature of another. And I think you’ll be relieved to find that Luskin & Greta’s take is equally off the mark.

  4. Jon Taplin says:

    Alex- If I had seen that Cristobal film before starting 4th grade geometry, I might not have been so scared or so bored. (I can’t remember which was the dominant emotion.

  5. Rachel says:

    Alex, that’s a really lovely comment you made there in response to Jon’s post. “As far as education is concerned, the beauty connecting math, music, physics, and language is the most basic thing there is.”

    Too right.

  6. Henry Jenkins says:

    I agree totally about what you say here about “innovative cultures” rather than strategies. But I have never thought that STEAM fully captured what constitutes a culture of innovation. Art is not the same thing as culture and Art by itself, even if coupled with STEM, may have dangerous lessons to teach unless it is coupled with the social sciences and humanities which really study how people live and work together to create meaning and value from their environment. Art is too easily reduced to product rather than process, though I understand it can be both. Art is too easily translated into hierarchy rather than participation, though I understand it can be both. Art is too easily translated into experimentation rather than innovation, though again it can be both. And art may or may not ask the hard questions about what makes us human, since it is capable of abstracting away from lived experience, though again with the “it can be both” message. So, I still distrust educational policies which put all the money into STEM and then embrace a version of ART which fits most comfortably with STEM and lops off everything else. We need to insist that education place a high value on the knowledge of human experience produced by the social sciences and humanities as a vital part of the mix.

  7. Mark LaPoint says:

    I think every company needs to look at Apple and try understand why, after many years of obscurity, and near death, is now undoubtedly the most successful company on earth, and does this in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

    The main point is that broke people are still buying quality products that meet or excede perceived product promisses. I liked Apple because I am a designer/artist and Apple created a tool that helped me do my job well from a creative point of view.

    Apple won, Steve can step down and let others run it, while he basks in the glow of not only a technological, but a corporate culture revolution that is about to start. He did that with a lot of help of course, but it was his driving vision and belief in it, that created what stands now. This is truly a David and Goliath story, just as Jobs envisioned back in his parent’s garage.

    Corporate America take heed.

    The punks can win.

  8. Pingback: People are buying Apple products | A Frugal Dude

  9. Alex Bowles says:


    As John Perry Barlow noted earlier today, “Steve Jobs was the illegitimate anchor baby of an activist Arab muslim who came to the U.S. on a student visa.”

    God bless America.

  10. Jon Taplin says:

    @Henry-I agree that STEAM is far too narrow of a counter acronym to STEM. Rather lazy and missing your point that they key missing ingredient is “the social sciences and humanities which really study how people live and work together to create meaning and value from their environment.”

    This is a heavy task to try to convince an education establishment which seems to be fixated on Science and Math. Perhaps our work where social science and computer science meet is a start.

  11. Jon Taplin says:

    @Alex- Here is one other cool point of view on math that was sent to me by John Seely Brown.

  12. Alex Bowles says:

    The Times ran a piece a few days ago about shortcomings in math education. It left me cold, but I did see an absolute gem in the comments.

    I took calculus in high school and in college and got absolutely nothing out of it. None of it ever made sense to me. Before I started grad school, I took an intensive summer course where I learned the history and philosophy of calculus, followed by calculus itself. The instructor related absolutely everything to the real world so we’d understand WHY we were learning the processes we were learning. It took one week before I was solving all sorts of problems using calculus, and applying calculus logic to non-math problems. I now think about everything in terms of utility maximization, consider my inputs, and conduct “sensitivity analysis” thought experiments as a way to understand situations in which I find myself.

    What’s remarkable about this experience is how fast it makes learning the subject itself when one takes the time to become properly primed. It actually reminds me of Lincoln’s remark about forestry; “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.”

    It also underscores the value of history. Rather that teaching it as a stand-alone subject, it can be adapted to provide the framework for understanding and appreciating not just the subjects it contains, but the development of contemporary consciousness itself. That is to say, when you’re trying to build your own understanding of a subject (especially one that of which you happen to be a part), tracing the course of how the subject itself developed provides an excellent way to grok it. And this process, quite naturally, involves the ingredient that Henry noted. Indeed, social, cultural, and political aspect is absolutely vital stuff.

    What I’m suggesting is that well-curated artifacts (e.g. paintings, poems, dramas, sculpture, architecture, bits of cartography, and so on) along with illustrations of contemporaneous political and economic structures, geographic features, and technical resources (call it “Vivid History”) can provide a particularly attractive point of entry, and thus a primary axis for pedagogy; one that provides ready access to the idea of the world, and the intellectual landscape from which mathematical ability and scientific understanding emerge.

  13. Alex Bowles says:

    Oh, hey, that’s exactly the piece I was referring to, JT.

  14. Amber in Albuquerque says:

    Just dipping my toes back in the pool by adding an anecdotal “ditto” to Alex’s comment above. I didn’t “get” calculus until my 3rd semester of it when I had two instructors: one a mathematician and the other a physicist. They both explained how calculus was used in the real world (one particularly vivid example was the explanation of why most soup cans are basically the same size & shape). I’ve maintained to this day that all three semesters were taught ass backwards—technique then application. I’m one of those people who can’t seem to learn anything unless I have a real problem to solve.

  15. Alex Bowles says:

    A friend just pointed me towards this wonderful animation from RSA. It dovetails with what folks here seem to know instinctively, but it approaches the subject from the outside-in, as opposed to the inside-out perspective with which people asses their own experience.

    It’s just phenomenally excellent.

  16. Morgan Warstler says:

    I’ve got a 4 yr old who’s just begun using Khan Academy.

    WTF are we letting shit brain teachers ruin of kids?

    They are baby sitters, why can’t we formalize that reality?

  17. len says:

    In contrast, it is not simply about culture. Strategies can hide behind the fine symbology and indeed this is how cultures can be directed. The bottom line of Apple is a strategy that closes the door to outsiders, keeps all final decisions close to the top, takes the innovations of competitors but resolutely resists standardization not of its own making can indeed focus effort and succeed brilliantly in an age of open systems and transparency. Any burglar knows this.

    Sorry lads and ladies, but no company in the history of computer science has done more to degrade and defeat open systems and transparency as has Apple. Plead outcomes and these are considerable, but in the end what you laud about Steve Jobs and his company you would roundly criticize in your government and your university.

    You cannot discuss a business culture without discussing competitive strategy, and it beats anecdotal culture every time because it is the selector of those cultural icons and symbols by which it’s business is directed.

    This is not to disparage the amazing accomplishments of Apple and Jobs. It is meant to illuminate means and strategies because otherwise, this becomes a limousine liberal’s fantasy of how the world should work through which others are led to their destruction while those sharp enough to see through the tinted glass or those behind it prosper.

  18. ec brown says:

    My best math education came from feeding a mathematician wine and letting him wax poetic on the subject. I’m not sure how that would be implemented into curriculum, however.

  19. ec brown says:

    I’ll concur with Len. Beholding the opulence of the Apple Store in Chicago has no discernable relationship to the pleasures of first getting my head around HTML as an invisible post-grad artist.

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