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Lessons In Mastery From Steve Jobs

There’s no denying that we can learn many lessons in mastery from Steve Jobs. He was genius in his work and “belongs in the pantheon of America’s great innovators, along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. None of these men was a saint, but long after their personalities are forgotten, history will remember how they applied imagination to technology and business.” – Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs’ best-selling biography.

Isaacson’s (2012) The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs published in the Harvard Business Review details what he believes were the keys to Jobs’ success. And since true success is built on principles they can be applied to any industry or practice. In the following text I’ll highlight a few examples of Jobs’ commitment to mastery and how you can apply them to achieving your vision:

Keys to Mastery


Jobs’ Zen training helped him to fiercely filter out anything he considered distractions. For instance, when he came back to Apple in 1997 he slashed their product offering to four computers – consumer, pro, desktop and portable, arguing, “deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”

At his annual retreats with his top 100 people, Jobs would ask them to come up with the top 10 things the company should do next. After much debate the group would decide on ten. He would then cross out the bottom seven and say, “we can only do three.”

Focused Strategy

Most of us know several things we could do to help us grow our business, get that promotion etc. But it’s as Henry David Thoreau said “It’s not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

When there are multiple solutions, follow Jobs’ example and slash all but three because spreading yourself too thin will bring mediocre results at best. Instead of trying to do a little of each, focus on the one to three things tops that will have the most impact. Commit to mastering your high-impact strategy and avoid being “a jack of all trades, a master of none.”


Jobs had the ability to simplify things by zeroing in on their essence and eliminating unnecessary components. He said “it takes hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” Recognizing the competitive advantage of simplicity, Jobs entered, and then dominated, industries or categories that were making their products more complicated than they needed to be, such as portable music players.

Simplification Strategy

When Winston Churchill said, “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter” he was referring to the skill of simplification as did Apple in its “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” campaign.

We tend to make things more complicated than they need to be in our personal and professional lives. However, once we’ve disciplined ourselves to clear away the clutter, be it mental, emotional or physical, a clear and more direct strategy will emerge. The skill of simplification is closely related to the skill of focus because when you remove the unnecessary components we are better able to focus on what’s most important.


Jobs stated, “The mark of an innovative company is not only that it comes up with new ideas first. It also knows how to leapfrog when it finds itself behind.” As a matter of fact, Jobs didn’t wait until Apple was behind before developing further competitive strategies. For example, Apple didn’t bask in the success of the iPod instead thinking ahead at what competitors might do to threaten his product. One possible threat was that mobile phone makers may integrate music on their devices. Jobs made the decision to cannibalize the sales of the iPod by creating the iPhone, arguing, “If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will.”

Anticipatory Strategy

Whether you’re falling behind or performing well adopt Jobs’ forward-looking strategy. From a business perspective, it’s important to know both what your competitors are doing now and what may be doing next. It’s acting on the latter that will give you the edge. From a personal goal perspective, I’d recommend using the forward-looking principle when modelling someone. For instance, look beyond what your role model is currently doing and consider what else they could be doing or what they could be doing differently to get better results.


Jobs was known to rework products that were already completed because they weren’t perfect. One example is when he asked for the chips on the circuit board inside the Macintosh to line up neatly. When an engineer noted that no one would see the inside of the device Jobs replied “I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back for the cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.” Once the product was perfected he asked the engineers to sign their names to be engraved inside the case saying, “Real artists sign their work.” Apple succeeded in the way that it did because Jobs knew that good is the enemy of great, never allowing anything he produced to be less than exceptional.

Excellence Strategy

Booker T. Washington accurately said “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.” At the time of the Macintosh, Apple wasn’t doing anything revolutionary or innovative. Jobs focus was for the company to execute beautifully. Similarly, what we do in our personal or professional lives are not unique to one another; where we differentiate is the way in which we do what we do. Mediocrity is rampant in our society with too many of us opting for ‘good enough.’ Follow Robin Sharma’s advice and ‘Adore mastery. Abhor mediocrity.’ A true master recognizes his work as his craft and takes pride in his masterpiece.

Wishing you all the success in the world,



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