Steve Jobs isn’t your role model

Others have written about this, so I’m not saying anything new here, but it’s my blog, so I get to vent when I want, and I’m amazed at how much of this Steve Jobs as role model stuff still persists. It annoys me when I continually see articles along the lines of “Steve Jobs did X, so if you want to be successful, you should too.” The rather explicit assumption in all of these is that being like Jobs is a desirable thing to be. So recently there was a spate of “Steve Jobs did a lot of his thinking while taking a long walk, so you should do walks too”. There is pretty good evidence that walking does help stimulate thought, but that Jobs did it is not relevant. He is also the poster boy for “dropping out of college is a smart career move”.

I’m not going to discuss the Jobs legend here, whether he really was a genius or not. Let’s assume all the accolades he is regularly awarded with are merited, that he changed our world. Even so, here are four good reasons why elevating Jobs to role model is a really bad idea.

1. He’s an outlier. Outliers always exist, and are the worst possible choice for you to base your career or life on. You are probably not an outlier, that’s why they’re outliers. Copying their characteristics will not make you like them.

2. We shouldn’t indulge bullies. There were elements of the psychopath, sociopath and bully in Jobs. Taking point 1, you are not Steve Jobs, so if you adopt many of his characteristics, you’re just going to be a nasty bully. But more widely, we shouldn’t indulge these traits in people because they’re the talent. Everyone – genius, billionaire, celebrity – is accountable, so we shouldn’t reinforce the myth that this type of behaviour is acceptable and even desirable.

3. He was a product of his time. Even of you accept the “Jobs was a genius” line, he was a genius in the right place at the right time. Steve Jobs wouldn’t be as successful as Steve Jobs if he were around now because the context is different.

4. It reinforces privilege. If language is couched in terms of ‘the next Steve Jobs’, then it’s likely that you will have a sub-conscious confirmation bias for a white, american male. You’re more likely to believe that such a person standing in front of you making a pitch is the next Steve Jobs, than, say, a Chinese woman making the same pitch.

So if you want to promote walking to encourage thinking and problem solving, please do. But don’t use Steve Jobs to justify it. The next Steve Jobs will not be at all like Steve Jobs, and for that we should be grateful.

6 Comments

  1. Rosie Hare says:

    Hear, hear! A great post. What is it about the human condition that has to idolise people in this way when, quite often, the people who are idolised weren’t actually very nice.

    1. admin says:

      Thanks Rosie – yes there is definitely a preference for the myth of the innovator, as Frances pointed out in response to my last post. Silicon Valley is rife with it and it’s very toxic I think.

      1. Rosie Hare says:

        You’re completely right about it perpetuating the ‘white, male’ domination thing too. I can’t imagine a lot of these places in Silicon Valley are pleasant places to work with a lot of these men around. Makes me think of Wolf of Wall Street just in a different industry.

  2. auntiesblog says:

    I believe in reading about successful people. I don’t want to mimic their life, but if they are more successful than I am, then there must be something from their experience that I can learn.

  3. lesposen says:

    I think the two most important things to learn about outliers like Steve Jobs is:

    1: how did they bounce back from adversity, from their own bad decisions (seen in hindsight of admitted to) and,
    2. From where and whom did they seek inspiration and mentorship?

  4. Maha Bali says:

    Great post! I love that I found it – I may give it to my students as an exercise in critical thinking!

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