Steve Jobs was a remarkable man who achieved great success in his life — whose innovations and contributions in the areas of technology, computing, and design have made a lasting impact on the lives of billions.
But there’s a lesser-known secret about Jobs you should probably know: he didn’t achieve anything in his life by tackling it all at the same time and divesting his efforts, or by shifting from one project to another without giving it a second thought.
Jobs believed, rather, that one’s power to achieve focus over a task — and to see it through until completion — is what will determine the project’s success.
But how on Earth does one “achieve focus” over a project or task?, you might ask, In a world full of people, possessions, and stimuli constantly clamoring for our attention?
The answer, according to Jobs, is that you must learn how to “say no.”
The Art of Focus
Jobs’ rationale was delivered on the sidelines of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, 1997 — the year he returned to the helm of Apple after having been ousted from the company amid a tense power struggle some 12-years prior.
He was fielding questions from some of the developers in attendance, many of whom were concerned about the future of Apple, when one dev raised their hand and asked Jobs about his decision to pull the plug on Apple’s software engineering platform, “OpenDoc.” However the answer Jobs gave was likely much broader and more impactful than the dev expected.
“I know some of you spent a lot of time working on stuff that we put a bullet in the head of. I apologize. I feel your pain,” Jobs begun, while going on to explain that “Apple suffered for several years from lousy engineering management. And there were people that were going off in 18 different directions–doing arguably interesting things in each one of them. Good engineers. Lousy management.”
“And what happened was, you look at the farm that’s been created, with all these different animals going in different directions, and it doesn’t add up. The total is less than the sum of the parts. And so we had to decide: What are the fundamental directions we’re going in? And what makes sense and what doesn’t? And there were a bunch of things that didn’t. And microcosmically they might have made sense; macrocosmically they made no sense.”
Watch the whole exchange from WWDC 1997 in the YouTube video here.
Just Say “No”
From Jobs’ perspective, the ability to focus on a task, without getting distracted or regressing into a procrastinated state, is by simply “saying no.” No, to the shiny objects, pesky people, and the seemingly limitless number of voice constantly vying for our attention.
“Focusing is about saying no,” Jobs concluded, which ultimately proved to be one of the iPhone inventor’s greatest skills. Rather than divest his efforts, Jobs was known for paying close attention to everything he achieved — whether it was the iMac G3, the iPhone, iPod, Apple Watch, or any of his other brilliant creations.
“Steve was the most remarkably focused person I’ve ever met in my life,” said Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, and the man Jobs once described as his “spiritual partner” in an interview with Vanity Fair.
“What focus means is saying no to something that you [think]–with every bone in your body–is a phenomenal idea,” Ive concludes, adding that Jobs used to ask him ‘How many things have you said no to?’ today.
“And you wake up thinking about it. But you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.”
Jobs’ wisdom is certainly relevant, and holds true even to this day, regardless of what we seek to achieve in our lives. Simply “saying no,” of course, is no easy feat — especially for those who tend to bounce from one idea to the next, or try to ensure that everybody’s happy.
But at the end of the day, according to Jobs’ infallible wisdom, the goal should be to channel your thoughts and feelings to work for you instead of against you. Then, as Inc.’s Justin Bariso puts it best, “instead of trying to do it all, you can simply do it right.”