Theory to Practice
by Michael E. Raynor
Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs has been deservedly widely praised. It does a masterful job of making you feel as though you have had a chance to appreciate the demons and angels of its subject’s character and how those spirits, malicious and munificent, made Jobs one of the few to “dent the universe.” Isaacson describes the behaviors that gave rise to what has been characterized as arrogance and insensitivity; we see the experiences that shaped Jobs’s unique ability to place the capabilities of technology into the service of humanity’s needs; we begin to accept that great achievement can sometimes demand an unwillingness to ever admit that any vision other than your own is worthwhile.
So far, so good.
In the April issue of Harvard Business Review, Isaacson wrote an article entitled "The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs."“Real” wasn’t italicized, but you could almost see it pulsing on the magazine’s cover. By the second paragraph, you know why: In the wake of the biography, Isaacson reports, many commentators have attempted to extract general principles of effective leadership-except that Isaacson says that they have drawn the wrong conclusions.
He then goes about setting the record straight, identifying fourteen essential attributes that were the “keys” to the Apple CEO’s success. The article’s conceptual summary of what the book describes in detail is an enormously helpful contribution to our collective understanding of a businessperson worth studying—someone who had not only a first, second, and third act, but in each case topped his own previous and remarkable accomplishments.
So far, so good.
Then it gets worrisome, for I fear that Isaacson falls victim to the same flaw that bedevils those he criticizes. Specifically, my worry is that we are, all of us, in danger of making too little of this biography’s signal achievement and too much of what we wish it had instead accomplished.
For example, Isaacson says that the general principles he distilled from Jobs’s experience are available for every CEO to try to—though should is the invited inference—emulate. Repeatedly throughout the article, Isaacson states explicitly that what drove his subject’s success is useful to others pursuing their own.
I think this goes much too far. The compelling narrative of the biography is simply not sufficient data to justify such general claims. Jobs, for all his impact, was still only one person. In extracting general principles from his career as a whole, we have precisely one data point with which to work. And you can draw any line you want through a single data point.
More importantly, the “question” the biography really tackles is not, “What made Jobs great?” but, rather, “What made Jobs Jobs?”. Isaacson uses the tools of the expert biographer to answer that question. These tools include a highly nuanced and contextualized examination of specific events and particular relationships, a careful weeding out of extraneous events, focusing only on those that, with the benefit of hindsight, turn out to have been formative or definitive and provide deeper understanding of the outcomes we have decided matter most.
(To illustrate the contrast, Isaacson could have written about how Jobs’s business experiences shaped his relationships, but he tells the story in the other direction. That focus must have altered the narrative that emerged.)
What matters more than anything in a great biography is getting as complete a picture as possible of a single life. And to make sense of Jobs, Isaacson weaves together as many different strands as his storytelling skill permits to impressive and revealing effect.
Rigorous social science, however, plays by very different rules, because it has very different objectives. Science seeks not merely to explain but to predict, a topic I’ve tackled before in this space. It demands that we make painful tradeoffs between the number of explanatory variables in our model and the predictive power of the model thanks to an unfortunate fact: The interpolation of data to account for current outcomes gives you a great “fit” but undermines your ability to predict with any confidence what will happen next. In addition, the more complicated the model, the more difficult it becomes to use it effectively for prediction, since every new variable introduces opportunities for error, and those errors compound.
It really starts to get hairy when we try to address a deeply complex phenomenon because there is a necessary correspondence between the complexity of what we are trying to understand and the tools suitable to its investigation. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, it looks something like this: When the problem is simple—atoms or smaller—physicists can cope quite well with their particle accelerators and the standard model of quarks, lepton, and muons. Put too many atoms in play, and you need chemistry to make sense of it all. Spirocyclic alkenes, molecular chirality, and ionic and covalent bonds all feature prominently. (Don’t be too impressed—I’ve been watching Breaking Bad on Netflix and took the examples from there.)
When those molecules become living organisms, you need biologists to weigh in, and they invoke a whole new set of concepts to capture the complexity for which chemists simply cannot account. When those biological organisms become self-aware, you need psychologists. When they start cooperating in groups, you need sociologists, and so on.
Even all these disciplines together still leave us with a vast uncharted territory. For example, we know that emotional states are governed—indeed are equivalent to—the action of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. But our explanations of emotional states in terms of these constructs are entirely unsatisfactory. So we still need concepts like love and sadness and anger and joy, which, for all their usefulness, mean different things to each of us. In fact, these terms draw much of their power from their intensely personal meanings. That is why their use is the province of novelists and songwriters and poets . . . and biographers.
We are all complex, multidimensional beings, and books are a linear medium, subject to their defining constraints. A complete depiction of an entire life in a biography is impossible; the best we can hope for is a crude outline of the most prominent features hacked with a stone chisel. With that, we can perhaps gain some insight into ourselves, a deeper appreciation of what makes us tick. Whatever we believe it might tell us about ourselves or others must be carefully examined in the context of our own experiences and applied, if at all, with extreme care. Such lessons apply to many of us only in the way that many dimensions of the human experience can be simultaneously intensely personal yet utterly common.
Science, by comparison, uses a scalpel to dissect many nearly identical specimens in order to create imperfect but powerful generalizations. Its lessons apply broadly by design, not by coincidence.
When you combine the biographer’s project—the explanation of a life—and the tools that must perforce be used, it does not fall to someone else to tell us what are the real lessons of Jobs’s life. Rather, it falls to each of us to learn what we can.
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