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.

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.

Soggy mail

This morning I woke up before the alarm and went for a run before dawn. I checked my email and there were receipts from three families I didn't know, signing up for camp. I felt like a rock star, totally in control of my world.

Guess what? It didn't last. My phone was broken, preventing me from accessing voicemail. The AT&T rep. was great but kept calling when I was in an appointment. I started a project I couldn't finish. I was fifteen minutes late for a lesson because I lost track of time. A kid who was supposed to take a piano lesson refused to, and insisted on drums instead. There was a miscommunication about a teacher's schedule, requiring me to call several families and grovel. An afternoon camp wasn't running so smoothly, the teacher in charge having had little experience working with groups. Oops, I was supposed to make the plan earlier and instead spent the morning fixing my phone. Yikes!

As an entrepreneur, it's easy to get a God complex - you are the go-to person for everything if you don't delegate properly. As a teacher, you can end up in the same place if you aren't cultivating autonomy in your students from the get-go. And as a coach of leaders, you can dole out responsibility but find yourself micromanaging if you haven't shown your team the procedures they will carry out and the standards you expect.

So it's a triple-whammy for me, and today it was hard to reconcile my sense of responsibility with actually being able to keep it all together. The constant interruptions, the dozens of crises, the relentless need to watch the clock...it's all been a big challenge and I made lots of mistakes. I tried to keep the attitude of "it's all a learning experience" but after ten hours or so, I was pretty tired.

I did make it. My last lesson went from 6:30 - 7:00, and it was pleasant - a thirteen-year-old beginning guitar student. About ten minutes in, a woman walks by on the sidewalk, on the phone, dragging a roller suitcase. I watched a magazine and a letter fall out of her back onto the ground. I jumped up and banged on the window, pointing to the stuff that had fallen out. She just looked at me like I was crazy and continued walking and talking.

At this point I had a choice. I could run outside and save her mail, or I could focus on what I was doing - what I was being paid to do. Did this student deserve an interruption? No. My work with the student was my priority. The lesson continued.

Ten minutes later, a surprise rainstorm came up. I watched as the pieces of mail in the street got wet, and then got soaked. Again, I had an opportunity to save this woman's mail - maybe I could have dropped it in a mailbox and it would get to her again - and again, I let the opportunity pass me by in favor of doing my real work, serving this music student.

Tim Ferriss, in The Four-Hour Workweek, says "you must be willing to let small bad things happen" if you ever want to escape meaningless chores and interruptions and spend your time and energy doing what matters to you. This is really hard for me. The buck stops here, and when something goes wrong I feel the need to make it regardless of what I actually have control over, or whether it was even a big deal.

But at the end of the day (literally), it might be okay to just let the soggy mail sit there.