Peter Kowalke

What I’ve Learned from Steve Jobs

By on June 26, 2015

I recently read the new book, Becoming Steve Jobs. I’ve admired Steve Jobs for years, and he serves as one of my rolemodels. This is not only because he was wildly successful and changed so many lives for the better, but also because he was a model for everyone who thinks different. You can be uncommon and strange, or you can be uncommon and awesome. Steve was the latter, and he showed that different could be useful and extraordinary, not eccentric and dysfunctional.

Being consistently uncommon myself, I’ve regularly looked at the example of Steve Jobs as a defense against the impulse to sand away my own beautiful but unusual ways.

The book was only middling good. It avoided the Steve Jobs caricature that painted him half asshole, half genius. But it made the jump from the immaturity in his early life to the mature brilliance of his later years without really explaining the jump. This was what I most wanted from the book, and it glossed over that part. I think they didn’t have a clear answer, and they were hoping nobody noticed.

I’m in the middle of a huge change myself. I was a magazine editor. Then I went into the woods for several years in search of a better role. During this time, I refined my flaws and grew massive new capabilities. Now I’m back, and I’m preparing for my big second act as founder of Kowalke Relationship Coaching. This role is what I’ve always been meant to do, and I’m quite excited about this second act.

I made a small contribution to the world when I produced the Grown Without Schooling documentary in 2001, much as Steve made his (admittedly larger) contribution to the personal computing revolution in the 1980s with the Apple II and the Macintosh. But much like Steve, my bigger contribution will take place in the second act. I’ve grown and changed, and everything has led up to something I think is going to be really magical.

Getting there has not been easy, however, and in the past few weeks I’ve found myself relying on a pattern that Steve exhibited in his later years: singular focus.

Steve once asked Apple design chief, Jony Ive, what good projects the designer had recently given up. To be insanely great you need focus. There are a lot of things vying for our time, many of them incredibly worthwhile. But we cannot make something great if we go in too many directions at once. We need to pick what is most important and give up the rest. Say no. Turn things down. Keep focus. Do only a few things and do them well.

Of course, we’ve all heard this before. When I heard Ive recount this story about Steve, however, I was struck by its importance. It stayed with me.

PeterSince coming back to New York, I’ve been much more focused and disciplined. There have been a lot of potential distractions, with the need to get new clients for my writing work, drama at my apartment, a litany of responsibilities held until I returned from my trip, and the many new ideas that were birthed while I was away. All clamor for my attention. For the most part, though, I’ve stayed extremely focused and marginalized everything nonessential to my second act.

Part of this change has been a continuation of my trip; if I wasn’t ruthlessly focused during my trip, I would not have been able to travel while working two jobs at the same time (the income job and the startup). Really I’m continuing a pattern begun late last year.

I’m also locked in a tight routine right now, however, which reinforces focus and also is the product of it. I exercise, pray, and eat clean meals at the same times each day. I start work on Kowalke Coaching each morning no matter the weather or the drama around me, and I both take breaks and socialize at regular internals throughout the week. If there’s an opportunity that tries to break this routine, I say no. If there’s a deadline or a project that looks to divert my attention, I say no. If there is unforeseen circumstance like a sleepless night or a break in the water pipes, I adjust but never break stride.

The last four weeks have been really cool, and really productive.

This was Steve’s situation later in life, too. He had cancer. He had more to handle than ever before as Apple expanded into so many new markets and the pace of product launches increased dramatically (and there was Pixar and Disney, too). But he had a routine, and he kept focused. He said no a lot, and he was single-minded on what he thought really mattered.

I’ve learned many things from watching the life of Steve Jobs. But this might be the most important. At least so far.

Peter is a relationship coach, writer/producer, and R&D monastic. He splits his time between San Francisco and Asia. Read more about Peter.