August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

Steve Jobs and the One Trait All Innovative Leaders Share

Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. ― Arnold Edinborough

One day the teacher asked Johnny a question.

“Johnny, the baseball game last night started at 8:00 and ended at 10:43, how long did it last?”

“That’s an easy one,” Johnny said excitedly. “I watched the game. It lasted nine innings.”

Johnny was quickly diagnosed with ADHD, but at last report he is now doing much better.

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I watched a wonderful documentary, Steve Jobs:  One Last Thing, and what struck me as the overarching secret to his success was his voracious curiosity. Jobs wasn’t curious about things that would make him successful. He was successful because he was so curious.

Strictly curiosity led him to the study of calligraphy that later produced all the fonts that made the original Apple computer so successful. His best friend from high school related how he and Jobs eschewed typical adolescent activities in favor of long walks pondering the mysteries of life. Later Jobs’ curiosity took him to India to study Eastern Mysticism, and later still to Zen Buddhism.

As more and more examples unfolded, I realized that this entire documentary, on perhaps the most innovative leader who ever lived, was little more than the story of one man’s omnivorous curiosity.

As someone with a lifelong obsession with Zen and mysticism, I liked the segment on Jobs and Zen even though I thought it was misleading. The implication was that Jobs went to Zen searching for the design simplicity that Zen is famous for; the simplicity that later led to the observation that Apple is a design company masquerading as a technology company.

But I think that the Zen-like designs that played such a pivotal role in Apple’s success was merely the accidental by-product of the profound curiosity that sent Jobs to Zen in the first place. Again, Jobs wasn’t curious because he wanted to be successful. He became successful because he was so curious.

Louis Mobley, my mentor and the founder of the IBM Executive School in 1956, always said that the best executives were generalists not specialists. The trait they all shared was an inexhaustible curiosity on everything from “NATO to Plato.” The more they learned the more connections they saw, and these connections produced the analogies from history, psychology, philosophy, science, literature, and poetry that produced their greatest creative business insights.

What we dismiss as irrelevant and therefore uninteresting a genius like Jobs sees as pieces in an unfolding interwoven jig saw puzzle. Pieces to be continually sifted until the piece that fits the problem finally emerges. But even this is misleading. It is not a practical application that drives genius. The fruit of curiosity just so happens to one day show up in a practical application.

Several years ago a scientist was being lauded for a discovery that cured a disease. At one point he almost sheepishly said, “All this makes me a bit uncomfortable. I never had any intention of curing a disease. It was an accident. I’m like most scientists. I do science because I’m curious. When it leads to a practical application I’m as amazed as you are.”

Bill Gates read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica as a teenager. Warren Buffett peppers his famous and folksy letters to shareholders with allusions to history, Shakespeare, and god only knows what. Their boundless curiosity has not only been critical to their businesses success but to their mutually advantageous friendship as well.

I took golf lessons with a talented high school student studying under the same pro. One day I asked him how he was doing at school. He told me that he was a mediocre student failing history. I asked why, and he replied that he only cared about golf, and history had nothing to do with golf.

“History has everything to do with golf,” I said.

I told him that history was at heart the study of human psychology, and that the real obstacles to becoming a great golfer were the demons lurking between his ears. Maybe the determination of Abraham Lincoln, battling depression while dealing with the death of a child, a mentally unstable wife, and an agonizing series of Union defeats, could serve as an inspirational model when his golf swing inexplicably produced an unending series of bad shots.

Besides, getting a good grade in something he didn’t particularly like would teach him the self-discipline that golf relies on. No matter how much we love something there are always aspects that we hate that we still must work at. (I knew that he loved pounding balls, but was an average putter because he hated bending over the putting green for hours on end.)

Then I told him that if he got great grades he’d get into a great golf college. A great golf college would not only offer great instruction, but increase the probability that he’d meet the people who could help him get his big break.

Finally, history might help him make a great first impression as a thoughtful, well rounded young man who was interested in others rather than just himself: a nice thing when you are trying to convince a group of wealthy investors to underwrite your expenses while you’re trying to make it on the PGA Tour.

Everything is related to everything. Life is just one big pattern and the more knowledge we accumulate the more interconnections we see. Curiosity builds on curiosity, our minds open up, and sooner or later the kind of practical applications that Jobs is so famous for just “fall out” almost of their own accord.

Narrow minded is not the definition of a person who holds a different political opinion from you. Narrow minded is thinking that becoming a great golfer can’t possibly be related to anything bigger than a finely tuned golf swing. Narrow minded people fail to see the subtle connections between the things that only seem unrelated.

I was recently invited to a fascinating conference called Building a Culture of Innovation Through Education hosted by Ann Goodnight. Ann is  the wife of Jim Goodnight, the super successful founder of privately held SAS Corporation. One speaker noted that psychologists have developed a test for divergent rather than linear or convergent thinking that they use as a proxy for creative potential.

At five 98% of all children have no trouble thinking divergently like Johnny in the baseball example above. From there creative thinking drops off ever more precipitously until by the age of twenty five only 2% of people can think outside-the-box.

Like Jobs the one thing that sets kids apart is an almost insatiable curiosity. Children are curious about everything. If you want to light up the face of a toddler just get out a book and read to him. But because somewhere along the line curiosity was almost literally beaten out of us, we feel duty bound to beat it out of them. If you can’t eat it, sleep with it, or it doesn’t involve a ball, it is boring and irrelevant. And whatever curiosity our children have left, is buried under an avalanche of narrow minded, dead brained and brain dead people monotonously repeating, “Yeah, but what on earth are you going to do with it?” (I’ve heard this refrain so often in my own life that, speaking for myself, I know what I’d like to do with it.)

In 1983 I joined the start-up that was later to become the A&E Network for little more than the opportunity to work for Jim Collins, one of the most outstanding leaders I have ever known. One day he said, “Augie, you’re doing a great job. Every day I see you applying the lessons from history, philosophy, carpet installing, Zen, Lou Mobley and all that other stuff that seems to fascinate you. I don’t know what ties it all together, but it sure works for you.”

Coming from one of my heroes, this was one of the nicest compliments I have ever received. But in retrospect the unifying principle is just the same thing that motivated Steve Jobs: Curiosity.

Follow me on Twitter @augustturak for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.