What Artists Can Learn from Steve Jobs

Today, as the world mourns the loss of visionary leader Steve Jobs—responsible for creating Apple, the Macintosh computer, iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Pixar Animation Studios—is an ideal opportunity to reflect and grow as individuals.

Eric Jackson recently published an article in Forbes called The Top Ten Lesson Steve Jobs Can Teach Us—If We’ll Listen. Points below are taken from that publication, but the explanations are mine, showing how they are directly relevant to artists.

#1: The most enduring innovations marry art and science – Isn’t it beautiful that the first point addresses art? The products of Steve Jobs married cutting-edge technology with beautiful design. Not to mention that his creations redefined the music industry.

Of course, a good part of what artists do is science. Learning to play Mozart on the bassoon is science. Training as a dancer and mastering water colors are both science. It only becomes art when you do something creative, personal, and life-altering.

#2: To create the future, you can’t do it through focus groups – When most businesses envision new products, they interview consumers to see what these folks want. But not Steve Jobs. He relied on his own inner compass.  The masses were unlikely to imagine the phone or music playing device of the future. But he could.

Most artists also have a focus group, whether they realize it or not. It’s made up of teachers, colleagues, family members, and friends, who all have their own ideas about how life should look, what career you should have, and which art you should create. But what if they’re wrong? Innovators find their own way. Following conventional wisdom is rarely the best solution.

#3: Never fear failure – Jobs got fired from the company he created. But that didn’t stop him from changing the world. Here is an incredible quote from his 2005 Stanford commencement speech:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life…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.”

While many artists view mistakes and failure as the enemy, perhaps we should do the opposite. Celebrate both successes and failures. This is a topic I addressed in an article called You Fail!!! But Are You Doing It Right?

#4. You can’t connect the dots forward – only backward – Also from the Stanford speech. His point here is that things don’t always make sense in the moment (a terrible car accident, getting fired, etc.). In the future, you’ll be able to see how these important events helped shape you, but not always in the moment.

History is taught moving forward through time at most schools, but that doesn’t reflect reality. Life works in reverse chronology. How could you possibly know what you’ll be doing in 25 years? We don’t even know what major event (good or bad) might occur tomorrow. While it’s imperative for artists to have a plan and a direction, be prepared to change just about everything if need be. It’ll make more sense later. Trust that life will work out, and don’t get in its way.

#5: Listen to that voice in the back of your head that tells you if you’re on the right track or not – Steve Jobs believed in creating his own destiny, even if that meant changing the world. Especially when it meant that. Jobs was about challenging status quo.

How about you? As an art maker, are you simply trying to fit into roles that have been pre-determined? Are you just a powerless character in the drama of the world? Or are you brave enough to rewrite the whole play?

#6: Expect a lot from yourself and others – Steve Jobs was a control freak and perfectionist. So are most artists I know. They have grueling expectations, always striving to reach the moon artistically.

But creatively and professionally, some of these individuals let themselves off the hook. They accept living as a “starving artist,” for example. They look for easy answers and traditional paths when it comes to career development, rather than devoting the same rigorous expectations to professional prosperity and making a difference.

#7: Don’t care about being right.  Care about succeeding – This quote comes from an interview after Jobs was fired by his own company, Apple.  It describes a phenoenon that plagues many artists. We want to play the “right” notes in the “right” way with the “right” people using the “right” format. But what if you do all those things and they still don’t lead to personal, professional, artistic, or financial success? Such dogmatic priorities often place focus in the wrong place. Make success your top priority. If you do that, the other details will work themselves out in the process.

#8: Find the most talented people to surround yourself with – Jobs did not create his empire alone. He sought the greatest talent available, and built a fortress with them.

Artists can do the same thing. Forget about beating out the competition. Befriend these great minds, become business partners, work together to build your kingdom.

#9: Stay hungry, stay foolish – This great quote is also from Jobs’ Stanford speech.

Have you already mastered your art? Are you too old to acquire new skill sets? Is it too late for you to leave a legacy? Or are lifelong learning, growth, exploration, and idealism as fundamental to your existence as breathing and eating?

# 10: Anything is possible through hard work, determination, and a sense of vision – Jobs was not a god. Just a human being, like you and me and eveyone else. But he changed the world time and time again.

His primary weapon wasn’t technology, contrary to popular belief. (Many people use technology, but their impact is limited.)  It was imagination and persistence. Anything is possible. You, your art, and your vision can indeed change the world. How? Well, a great start is embracing the points above.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jobs. Thank you for changing our world, and for all the lessons your example continues to teach. You were an inspiration, master teacher, and the quintessential artist.

About the author

David Cutler

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