Words To Live By

The quote of the day comes by way of Jony Ive. You may not know the name, but you know his work. Think of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air and all their clever accompaniments like a magnetized power cord.

Their elegant, streamlined, minimalist look is the work of Jony Ive and his Apple design team. Ive is a Londoner by birth who’d been hired when Steve Jobs was no longer with the company he founded. When he returned from the wilderness destined to turn Apple into a behemoth, Ive had a letter of resignation in his pocket. Jobs had already had talks with other designers.

Instead, the two men had a mind meld and the rest in history. I owe some of these facts to a fascinating New Yorker profile of Ive by Ian Parker. The designer is personally very unlike Jobs. Where he was dramatic, volatile, acerbic, and demanding, Ive is low key, modest to a fault, uninterested in the limelight, a team player – though quietly well aware of his worth. He seems rather like the print reporters on the 1972 campaign trail, described in Timothy Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus,” as “shy egomaniacs” (unlike their TV counterparts who are flamboyant egomaniacs). The design team seems to be in Ive’s image — collegial, if perfectionist, team players.

Jobs was a far less amiable character who suffered fools not at all. Here is Parker’s description of a seminal moment. “Jobs’ taste for merciless criticism was notorious. Ive recalled that, years ago, seeing colleagues crushed, he protested. Jobs replied, ‘Why would you be vague?’, arguing that ambiguity was a form of selfishness. ‘You don’t care about how they feel. You’re being vain, you want them to like you.’ Ive was furious, but he came to agree. ‘It’s really demeaning to think that, in this deep desire to be liked, you’ve compromised giving clean, unambiguous feedback.’”

Of course, Jobs seems to have rather enjoyed laying waste to the egos of lesser mortals, but Ive thinks his friend and mentor gets a bad rap. His motives were pure. He was being, as Hamlet said to his mother, cruel in order to be kind. Or at least ruthlessly straight forward and uncompromising.

Personalities aside, “Why would you be vague?” joins the pantheon of good advice. Let’s face it, in business, politics, diplomacy, education, the news, the battle of the sexes and everyday life, it is consistently true that people pull their punches, soft peddle criticism, and generally fail to say what they mean. Whether well-intentioned or slyly Machiavellian, the practice can be extremely counter-productive and often backfires. Worse, if it’s merely a cowardly attempt to avoid push back, blow-ups, and bad blood, it results in settling for second best results.

To Jobs that was anathema. Another great American Entrepreneur, Charles Revson the creator of Revlon, was cut from a similar mold. He once had a huge shipment of nail polish destroyed at considerable cost to the company because the color was wrong. His business partners urged him to just go ahead and sell it and get it right the next time, to which Revson memorably replied: “I don’t ship shit.”

Last but not least, a third great quote on more or less the same subject. As a young man, the celebrated dancer and choreographer Tommy Tune was appearing in his first Broadway production, directed by Gene Kelly. He was in awe of the legendary dancer and kept waiting for a word of criticism or praise. All he got was a series of specific suggestions or corrections about this or that step, but no overall assessment. Finally he could stand it no longer. The night before the opening, he asked Kelly if he was doing alright.
“Tommy,” Kelly said to him, “I’m going to tell you what Fred Astaire once said to me as a young dancer when I asked the same question.”

My God, thought Tune, its one great man handing down wisdom to another and now to me.

“What did Mister Astaire say?” Tune asked, agog.

“He said to me: Gene, dance better.”

So there you have it. How to succeed in life. Don’t be vague. Don’t ship shit. Dance better.

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