Gladwell on Jobs: An inventor? Maybe. A tweaker? Definitely.

What was Jobs' real genius? Invention or Tweaking?

I ran across this article by Malcolm Gladwell on Steve Jobs by way of following Nancy Duarte’s tweets. As should be evident by now, I take the concept of tweaking very seriously, despite it’s generational colloquial use, which references users of the drug crystal meth. I began Tweak Your Slides by providing a definition of my use of the term, which applied first to slides and learning materials, but which has expanded to every aspect of my life. I look for opportunities to tweak, to take what is and make it better, to adjust it methodically to perfection, or as near as I’ll ever get to that.

This month's fine adjustments: The six-day workout week and a 1200 calorie diet.

I will admit, that while I admired Steve Jobs as a presenter, important figure of the computer age, and complex man, I did not feel the same level of adoration that reduced many to tears upon learning of his death. I believe I’d resisted the cult of Steve primarily because of my contentious nature–I can’t stand what’s expected or predictable. However, Gladwell’s impeccable storytelling (check out his talks on TED), has caused me to reexamine what I can learn from this tweaker, this editor not inventor, a man whose real genius may have stemmed from his dissatisfaction with mediocrity and half-assed attempts at greatness. Gladwell  provides readers with more insight into how the term applies to Jobs by including the work of economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, who examine the reasons why the industrial revolution began in England:

One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France, or Germany? Many reasons have been offered. Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, for instance. It had a good patent system in place. It had relatively high labor costs, which encouraged the search for labor-saving innovations. In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage—in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.” They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

Such men, the economists argue, provided the “micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”

So, it was the tweakers that might have made the difference and given England the competitive advantage. It was human-capital, not environment or wealth that spurred humanity’s move into the modern age. The kind of ingenuity that saw potential in the already existing genius of man and tweaked it, distilled, tinkered with, adjusted, and manipulated to perfection.  Gladwell asserts that this ability to make micro-revisions to macro-ideas is what sets Jobs apart from his contemporaries. It also seems this tweak-centered thinking was peppered with Jobs’ impatience and and abrasive, no nonsense approach. Jobs demanded perfection, but often did so in caustic ways. His genius was such though, that others were willing to navigate the turbulent sea of Jobs’ moods, knowing he would only steer them to apotheosis. Check the article out on The New Yorker. My favorite anecdote? Jobs refusing his oxygen mask on the grounds that he “hated the design” and making the pulmonologist present him with five different masks to choose from. Even at the end of his life, Jobs remained deeply principled and passionate. I can only hope to do the same at the end of my life.

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