What Steve Jobs did really well

Jobs is stepping down from his leadership role at Apple, as has been all over the news for the last several days, and I had to say that he’s someone I’ve really admired. Not just as a fully committed member of the Cult of Mac, but because I’ve really liked his style.

Here’s a video of Jobs addressing a rather insulting question…and answering it amazingly well.

He doesn’t get defensive, he doesn’t defend the details, he just steps back and explains what it means to have the whole picture in his head.

And then his management style was legendarily combative and critical. Jonah Lehrer has an excellent piece on the strengths and weaknesses of in-your-face confrontation. This resonates with me: I find a little strife extremely invigorating, and I know some personalities like to seek it out and wrestle with it.

At first glance, this cultivation of anger and criticism seems like a terrible idea. We assume that group collaboration requires niceties and affirmation, that we should always accentuate the positive. Just look at brainstorming, perhaps the most widely implemented creativity technique in the world. In the late 1940s, Alex Osborn, a founding partner of the advertising firm BBDO, outlined the virtues of brainstorming in a series of best-selling books. (He insisted that brainstorming could double the creative output of a group.) The most important principle, he said, was the total absence of criticism. According to Osborn, if people were worried about negative feedback, if they were concerned that their new ideas might get ridiculed by the group or the boss, then the brainstorming process would fail. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” Osborn wrote in Your Creative Power.

But maybe this is a big mistake. Maybe Steve Jobs was on to something when he refused to hide away his disappointment or displeasure. That, at least, is the takeaway of a new paper by Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Their first experiment was straightforward, demonstrating that anger was better at promoting “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task, at least when compared to sadness or a neutral mood. The second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to brainstorm on ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. These ideas were also deemed more original, as they were thought of by less than 1 percent of the subjects.

You don’t change the world by placidly finding your bliss — you do it by focusing your discontent in productive ways.

(Also on FtB)