Lessons learned from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, 1955 - 2011.Moments ago, I found out that Steve Jobs has passed away at the age of fifty-six. I was moved by this news far more than one might expect, considering I never met the man.

I'm typing this on my Apple MacBook pro, listening to a song on iTunes via Apple TV, sitting next to my Apple iPhone. Obviously, the work of Steve Jobs has had a huge impact on my life.

But beyond the fancy gadgets created by Mr. Jobs and his team, I've been greatly influenced by the legendary leader of Apple as a human being. His vision, entrepreneurship, passion, determination, and his flair for innovation - these are all traits I have cultivated in my own life and career by following his example.

I learned from Steve Jobs the power of focus. From his iconic dad jeans and black mock turtleneck to the sleek black beauty of the iPhone that never leaves my side, Jobs' minimalism allowed him to zero in on the things that were most important to him, in his work and in his life.

Steve taught me that less is more. Apple has an aesthetic that brings to mind the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "Perfection is achieved, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away." My phone doesn't have a blinking light to let me know when I missed a call. There's no logo on the front. It just sits there until I need to use it. Sometimes the killer app is no app at all.

It is easy to lampoon these high-end products as overpriced toys for elitist yuppies, and their marketing as ridiculously self-important, almost messianic. But...moments ago, in the dark, I pressed a little button on my keyboard that turns on a tiny light under each one of the keys. No instruction manual was necessary. These intuitive, human touches give Apple gear a remarkable elegance. It's a unity of form and function you find in well-made musical instruments. Design matters.

Music matters, too. From the time I was about ten, I loved how a Sony Walkman and a great cassette tape could make a moment go from banal to cinematic the moment I slipped on my headphones. I'll never forget an evening when I was about fifteen, riding the school bus back from some event or other in the darkness of rural Maine and seething over some perceived injustice regarding an unrequited crush and a disloyal friend in a seat nearby. But I had "She's a Rainbow" and "Remember" and the chance to create my own narrative about this moment and my sure-to-be-amazing future.

Then there were the good times in the kitchen at Bosch Baha'i School where Dave, Sarah, Jessica, Jesca and I would take turns pulling from our gigantic faux-leather binders of compact discs to share music with each other as we prepared meals for the guests and cleaned up after dinner. The Color and the Shape by the Foo Fighters will always remind me of those California nights.

All those CDs skip now, and my old mix tapes are worn thin. It hardly matters - largely because of Steve Jobs. Finding the right song for the right moment is as easy as a couple clicks or swishes (my husband makes a game of how few characters he can type into iTunes and find his song). Jobs changed the course of his company and an entire industry with the iPod, banking on the personal connection that people have with their music. I'm not a teenager anymore, but I can still feel like one anytime I want to. And since my entire career revolves around music, it's highly validating to see just how important it still is to people, as measured by the success of iTunes and the iPod.

As a CEO, Jobs was not only a visionary and a lovable geek but also a perfectionistic egomaniac and an FTC-baiting bully. But when I'm unsure of the next step to take with my own business, I look to leaders like Steve Jobs to remind me that dedication to something you believe in is more important than being liked or being comfortable. Pursuing a challenge means risking loss and disapproval, but sometimes it's gotta be done - especially when the alternative means a compromise that pleases no one.

Steve Jobs followed his passion and trusted his gut, and wasn't afraid to be different. A college dropout with a strong drive to learn, he was dedicated to growth and authenticity. I have the greatest respect for a person who can stay true to himself even in the public eye, as the leader of a public company. Speaking to Stanford University's class of 2005, he famously said:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something...almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

...Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Thanks, Steve. You have been a great teacher and a profound inspiration to me. My heart goes out to your family. Peace.

Pride and Joy

Every so often, someone will ask me how long Eclectic Music has been around. And I'll say, "I've been in Atlanta X number of years, so..." And they'll say, "No, but when did it really start?" implying that it didn't begin until I brought on my first contractor.

That was in 2007, and I can understand why that is a more interesting milestone for people. We started growing faster, having more visibility and presence in the community. That's also about the time my life changed significantly in the way the life of a new parent changes - no more going off the grid, no more sleeping in, and no more keeping up with movies, TV, and radio.

I guess Eclectic Music is my pride and joy. I might or might not feel a tiny pang when I hear Marvin Gaye sing, in the song of the same name,

"You've got kisses sweeter than honey/And I work seven days a week to give you all my money."

Yeah, I know just what he's talking about. Minus the kisses.

Except, figuratively speaking, there are sort of kisses. There are "I love you, Mommy" moments when it's all worth it, and everything comes together. There are really a lot of those moments, because music facilitates such a strong soul connection between people. And because I tend to work with a lot of children, who can't help but make you feel that sense of legacy - of investing in something bigger and more meaningful than yourself.

Today I got a call from a family I haven't worked with in several years. I started teaching piano to their youngest daughter when she was eight. She was one of the fastest-learning young piano students I've ever spent time with, with a sweet demeanor and an intuitive understanding of musical concepts. I can't remember exactly why we stopped working together - something logistical. Anyway, they found my website and are coming to see me next week. Her mother said something really touching: that no one else has been able to her daughter to find the joy in her music the way I was able to.

This story is obviously meaningful to me, and it reminds me that I didn't start in 2007 - I began building this school almost ten years ago, in 2002. I did a lot of work that I never thought was going to pay off to anything more than helping one more student advance toward his or her musical goals. I did that work because it mattered. It clearly still matters - the only thing that's changed is the scale.

The scale is sometimes unwieldy. I'm playing a waiting game right now, hoping that the fall enrollment numbers are going to look good and that they will sustain three gigantic rent payments and a too-big-but-essential office staff. They will, they will. They have to!

When I first moved to Atlanta I distributed flyers around town and waited for results - and now I'm doing the same thing again. I could see that as evidence of how far I haven't come, or I could look at the network of relationships that has evolved as a result of my work and feel the pride. And joy.

Why would any of this end now? Because of that network, it won't. Because I keep trying, with all the love that I have, to grow as a person and as a business owner.

My Aunt Marie said recently that, if she could raise her two daughters over again, she "would have enjoyed it more." I'm trying to take that wisdom and apply it to my current situation. To see the end in the beginning, and the beginning in the end. And to appreciate the moments as they happen.

What is the point of my business?

As my business develops, I am thinking about how I got started and where I hope to go from here. I started teaching music lessons because those were the skills I had. What would I do if I were starting a career based on the skills I have now?

I am passionate about music, and I'm passionate about education. Of course I'm passionate about music education. But I'm thinking: Why? What is the point?

The ideas I get the most excited about sharing have to do with effectiveness - doing the most with the least. Fixing problems that most people miss. Finding shortcuts that sharpen and strengthen. Uncovering the principles that underlie all effective methods and applying them in innovative ways. This is how I teach, this is how I run my business, this is how I run my life. Classic NT personality type.

However, my job in business is not to scratch my own itch to make things more effective, efficient, and excellent. It is to serve people, and often the most effective way to do that is a principle that contradicts some others:

     Figure out what people want, and help them to get it.

In some cases, I have to help them to figure out what they want. And in some cases, I have to help them to figure out that there is something worth wanting. And in some cases, I have to figure out that what they want is not what they say they want...or not what will help them to achieve their larger goals. It gets confusing and murky in there, but as long as I still have some guiding principles to go by, we're fine.

Here's what I believe:

  • Music is a means of self-expression and connection.
  • Self-expression is a means of self-development.
  • Life is a process of self-development.
  • Self-development is discovering and enhancing your ability to be of service in the world.
  • Being of service means connecting with others through who you are, what you create, or what you do.
  • Connecting with others, whether directly or indirectly, helps them in their own journey of self-development.

What's exciting about music is that it's a direct and immediate connection - that's what makes it so powerful. But sometimes, in the process of developing a musician, we discover that their most authentic means of self-expression is another instrument or another medium entirely. That's okay - that's the point.

So, the point of my business is clear: to encourage and develop self-expression for people of all ages. Our most obvious way of doing that is through music, and that's enough for me right now. But obviously, I love playing with the larger ideas, and I hope that others can find something here relevant to their own work.