Steve Jobs & Beauty For Everyone
“When you took an iPod out of the box, it was so beautiful that it seemed to glow, and it made all other music players look as if they had been designed and manufactured in Uzbekistan.” (Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, p. 393).
When you pick up an iPod, or an iPhone or an iPad, you know immediately and intuitively that you’re holding a work of art, a carefully crafted device likely surpassing all others in its field.
Such is rarely the case for communication and debate, work culture and leadership, or personal well-being, for those working in American politics.
If we are going to breathe life into the American political process, we should learn the story of Steve Jobs as told by Walter Isaacson to find inspiration. Jobs’ story, one of deep flaws yet full of life-giving genius, will move us towards creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty in our work. So what will it take, then, for politics to become a work of art, reflecting honest craftsmanship?
A Deeper Knowledge of Reality
We desperately need to connect the concept of freedom—of abundant life—to all of work. We say that we fight for freedom, or that we’re upholding it, or sing of being the land of the free. But far too often fear and obsession with power, significance, or importance, are at the core of our motivations. Instead we need restored motives and a vision for freedom so deep that all areas of life and work are changed.
In many ways Jobs accomplished this with the iPod. As Isaacson writes:
More than that, the iPod became the essence of everything Apple was destined to be: poetry connected to engineering, arts and creativity intersecting with technology, design that’s bold and simple. (p. 393).
How do we unite seemingly separate objectives into a unified whole?
A New Ethos
Isaacson shares the full sixty-second, original text of the “Think Different” campaign:
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. (p. 329).
Many of us, no doubt, like the idea of being the misfits, the rebels. We wave founding era flags; some even wear three cornered hats. We give stuffy speeches about the principles of the American Revolution, and craft hand-lettering that’s as close to Thomas Jefferson’s cursive or John Hancock’s signature as we can get. And while it’s all great and American, it all seems distinctly stuck in 1776. The truth is, liberty isn’t an ideal born at our founding, although we can see its practical implications in the lives of many founders. Rather, it’s an ideal transcending time and history. We need an ethos not rooted in our founding; we need the ethos of Truth and Beauty that exists apart from our founding and inspired it.
So what is our next step if we are driven by a new vision for Truth and Beauty in our work?
A Simple Focus Created by an Understanding of Complexity
What, exactly, are we crafting in our work in American politics? If we answer the question honestly, it will scare us, because so many dysfunctional motives pass as good craft. Who gets to decide what good policy is, or well-crafted talking points? Our craft is too often a disastrous mix of fear and animosity towards those who disagree with us; I know because I lived it myself for too long.
If we believe in the Constitution and the representative government it created, then to be intellectually consistent we should value the accurate representation of diverse and seemingly contradictory opinions. Doing so will require us to rise to the challenge of sharing our own perspectives in a way that’s compelling. Making the case for a policy position that would effectively move the Congress from the failing status quo to robust, breakthrough, unifying solutions will require time and resources, so we may learn the complexities of any particular problem. If you want to reform the Department of Education, or establish a comprehensive energy strategy, or simplify the tax code, congressional offices might need to move beyond sending letters and Dear Colleagues into oblivion and instead band together to achieve the objectives in their Dear Colleagues and letters.
In Apple’s case, Isaacson describes the philosophy of Jobs and his designer, Jony Ive:
Ive was a fan of the German industrial designer Dieter Rams, who worked for the electronics firm Braun. Rams preached the gospel of “Less but better,” Weniger aber besser, and likewise Jobs and Ive wrestled with each new design to see how much they could simplify it. Ever since Apple’s first brochure proclaimed “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Jobs had aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them. “It takes a lot of hard work,” he said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”
In Ive, Jobs met his soulmate in the quest for true rather than surface simplicity. Sitting in his design studio, Ive described his philosophy:
Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.
That was the fundamental principle Jobs and Ive shared. Design was not just about what a product looked like on the surface. It had to reflect the product’s essence. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer,” Jobs told Fortune shortly after retaking the reins at Apple. “But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
As a result, the process of designing a product at Apple was integrally related to how it would be engineered and manufactured. Ive described one of Apple’s Power Macs. “We wanted to get rid of anything other than what was absolutely essential,” he said. “To do so required total collaboration between the designers, the product developers, the engineers, and the manufacturing team. We kept going back to the beginning, again and again. Do we need that part? Can we get it to perform the function of the other four parts?” (pp. 343-344).
But what do we need if focus and simplicity are outside our current mode of operating?
A Re-Imagined View of Success
Before Ive and Jobs were teammates, Jony was ready to quit.
He was sick of the company’s focus on profit maximization rather than product design. Jobs’ talk led him to reconsider. “I remember very clearly Steve announcing that our goal is not just to make money but to make great products,” Ive recalled. “The decisions you make based on that philosophy are fundamentally different from the ones we had been making at Apple.” (pp. 340-341).
In politics, so many decisions are driven by getting votes, raising money to get votes, or just, well, politics. But what if we placed the same value and care on our communication and debate, work culture and leadership, and personal well-being? What else do we need to move us there?
A Work Space Constructed to Fuel Creativity
To move beyond 535 offices (and more if you count committees, non-voting Members, leadership, etc) working largely in isolation, all trying to create the best headlines to raise money or satisfy grassroots activists, we’re going to have to dream big, and think far outside the bounds of how congressional offices, and campaigns or other workplaces, are currently set up. To boost our imagination, it’s fitting that we look at a work space Jobs designed specifically to boost creativity: Pixar’s HQ in Emeryville, CA.
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” (p. 431).
Maybe completely re-imagining workspace, or how we use the space we have, seems like a lot of unnecessary work just to craft better talking points, especially if you believe the world isn’t perfect. But recognizing the world isn’t perfect reveals the danger and opportunity in all of the preceding ideas. How can we see these dangers and opportunities in Steve Jobs’ story?
A Deep Understanding of the Human Condition
As the deadline for completing the iMac drew near, Jobs’ legendary temper reappeared in force, especially when he was confronting manufacturing issues. At one product review meeting, he learned that the process was going slowly. “He did one of his displays of awesome fury, and the fury was absolutely pure,” recalled Ive. He went around the table assailing everyone, starting with Rubenstein. “You know we’re trying to save the company here,” he shouted, “and you guys are screwing it up!” (p. 351).
Jobs was known for his temper and relational problems. But if we understand the human condition, we can lift our affections out of brokenness in favor of life. In fact, the more we see the unrealized potential of the human condition, the more tempted we will be to grow angry or cynical in response, feeding urgency for perfection our colleagues won’t be able to achieve.
Why then does all of this matter? What’s at stake? Why not just quietly go on living with our heads down, letting the status quo roll onward, not bothering to voice a call to Truth and Beauty? Why should we refuse to surrender to the notion that even the best leaders in politics can’t really make a difference? Most importantly, what are those who claim to follow Jesus especially missing in our work in politics?
A Compelling Reflection of the Existence of God
Our final insight into the life of Steve Jobs comes more from an artist he admired than it comes from Jobs himself.
There was one classical musician Jobs revered both as a person and as a performer: Yo-Yo Ma, the versatile virtuoso who is as sweet and profound as the tones he creates on his cello. They had met in 1981, when Jobs was at the Aspen Design Conference and Ma was at the Aspen Music Festival. Jobs tended to be deeply moved by artists who displayed purity, and he became a fan. He invited Ma to play at his wedding, but he was out of the country on tour. He came by the Jobs house a few years later, sat in the living room, pulled out his 1733 Stradivarius cello, and played Bach. “This is what I would have played for your wedding,” he told them. Jobs teared up and told him, “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” On a subsequent visit Ma allowed Jobs’s daughter Erin to hold the cello while they sat around the kitchen. By that time Jobs had been struck by cancer, and he made Ma promise to play at his funeral. (pp. 424-425).
What we have to see is that there is simply no one looking at your average “Christian” in politics (myself included, far too often) and saying, “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” (p. 425).
Nothing about our work in politics is a melody so moving it would lead anyone to long to step with us into the Kingdom for which we were created.
The miracle is that our story doesn’t end here. Beauty will rise from the ashes: we can find a deeper knowledge of Truth and Beauty, pursuing a creative infusion of the two into our communication and debate, into our work culture and leadership, and even into our personal well-being. We can create a political culture so moving, so close to the heart of God that we are captured by a new masterpiece of music: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Pick one (or all) of the points above (rewritten as questions below) and spend some time journaling or brainstorming with your office coworkers on how you can bring beauty into your workplace.
How can you connect the idea of abundant life to your work?
What’s the ethos of your current work environment? In what ways could it be better?
Where do you need to focus time and resources to understand the complexity of a task or policy issue in order to offer the country a substantive solution?
How can you rewrite your metrics for success to value high quality instead of getting attention or power?
How do you need to re-imagine use of your workspace to achieve your new metrics for success?
What human needs aren’t being met in your workplace? How can you meet them?
What will it take for others to view your work in politics as the most compelling argument for the existence of God they have ever heard?
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or funding our vision by donating monthly or making a purchase in our store.
Photo Credits: Heather Gibbons
ISSUE 010: BEAUTY FROM ASHES, PART 2