Steve Jobs as seen through his nemesis


(Credit: Matt Yohe)


As some of you know, I am fascinated by the complex character of Steve Jobs, who is one of the people featured in my forthcoming book (though not at all in his usual context).

So I enjoyed reading this interview with John Sculley, Jobs’ erstwhile nemesis (when Sculley pushed Jobs out of Apple in the 80s).


The interview may be too geeky for some of you, but I like it, first, because of the noble tone in which Sculley speaks. He is not bitter; he does no underhand sniping; he does not furtively try to redeem himself or get even. Sculley simply moves on from what was an extremely painful episode in the two men’s lives to evaluate — and bow to — the genius of his enemy.

(Steve Jobs, from everything I hear, has never got himself to take that same step.)

Sculley speaks, in other words, as Hannibal would speak about Scipio, or Scipio about Hannibal. Great men and women are ennobled by their enemies. Kudos.


Second, I like the interview for this glimpse into the nature of Jobs’ genius. Sculley:

What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist… He is constantly reducing things to their simplest level. It’s not simplistic. It’s simplified. Steve is a systems designer. He simplifies complexity.

Simplicity is, of course, a big thread here on The Hannibal Blog. It is interesting that Jobs also admires Einstein, as I do (he is another main character in my book), probably because Einstein had that same yearning for elegance and simplicity. As Sculley recalls:

I remember going into Steve’s house and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.

(Compare this to Feng Shui.)


Third, I like it for what I interpret as Steve Jobs’ instinctive nod to the Dunbar hypothesis.

Named after the anthropologist who came up with it, the thesis says that primates can form effective social groups only to the extent that their neocortex can compute the interactions among the group. The cognitive limit for human groups seems to be about 150. (I once worked with Facebook to find out whether technology might change that. Not hugely, it appears.)

Anyway, listen to Sculley:

Steve had a rule that there could never be more than one hundred people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone you had to take someone out. And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: “I can’t remember more than a hundred first names so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than a hundred people, it will force us to go to a different organization structure where I can’t work that way.”

17 thoughts on “Steve Jobs as seen through his nemesis

  1. The Dunbar number strikes me as way to high. I currently hold at 167 Facebook friends, and my neocortex has serious trouble computing my interactions with more than five of them on a regular basis.

    … he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do.

    Probably true. Eric Clapton once said that the hardest thing about playing an effective guitar solo is to decide which notes not to play.

    • Dunbar extrapolated from the size of primates’ neocortex to their group size. So let’s play:

      – We assume that you are a primate.

      – Your Dunbar number is five.

      – you therefore are:
      1) lemur
      2) tamarin
      3) gibbon
      4) chimp
      5) other….

    • Can I be a bishop? Bishops are primates, too. And thanks for calculating my personal Dunbar number. I’ll put it on my résumé under “People Skills.”

    • In the spirit of this post — and NOT saying certain things — I had a great joke about Bishops here. But it will remain unsaid.
      And yes, some bishops are primates.

    • Oh, come on. Let’s hear the joke. As long as you don’t openly admit to your fear of folks in bishop garb on airplanes, your gig at the Economist is safe.

  2. John Sculley characterizes Jobs’ particular genius as wisely deciding what not to do.

    In the interview about Jobs, Sculley, himself, resists (“the things you decide not to do”) the human inclination to engage in underhand sniping and furtive attempts at revenge.

    How elegant.

    • You mean the Mac team, or the iPhone team, or a product team right? I don’t know. But I can tell you that The Economist’s editorial team has always been smaller than 100.

  3. I’m glad John Sculley gives proper credit to Herman Hauser. I used an Acorn Archimedes with RISC technology and an ARM processor for accounts in my office way back in 1987, but it was much more fun than that. Not that I understood anything about it.

    I feel a little bit of a chill run through me, Andreas, as much as I pick up on your admiration of Steve Jobs, that Mac users are forced to think according to his understanding of what a user is. That, though, is the abiding weakness of all computing.

    That same outlook is, I suppose, the source of my allergy for all things corporate.

  4. This post reminds me of a book I read recently, On Being Pagan by Alain de Benoist. In it, de Benoist sets up two approaches to life which he views as diametrically opposed to each other, a Christian paradigm and a pagan one. According to him, the pagans had (among other things) a tradition of respecting their enemies, of seeing the value and even often honor in what their enemies did. So you get instances like the Iliad in which there are heroes on both sides. That heroes and champions find themselves facing off with each other is more a historical happenstance than “right” or “wrong.”

    The Christian paradigm, on the other hand, defines all action in absolute moral terms. Good and Evil. So if you (and God) are on one side and anyone else is on another, you are Right and they are Wrong, absolutely.

    While I don’t think the categories are nearly as neat and tidy as de Benoist says they are, I find distinction to be quite useful: Exclusive and Inclusive thinking, if you will, instead of Christian and Pagan. It reminds me that everyone has a concrete (if you want to avoid the term “legitimate”) reason for behaving the ways they do, even your enemies. And in understanding that, you might learn a thing or two. Seems to me extremely rare (if it happens at all) that people behave the way they do because they are “evil” or “hate our freedom” or however simply you want to characterize them….

    • Another amazing serendipity.

      (Are you recommending the book, btw? Is it good?)

      When pressed for a “religion” label, I usually say something like “pagan” (“lapsed Wiccan”, on my Facebook page), entirely in jest, as though DARING the questioner to keep his straight face.

      But now you’re making me ponder whether there might be more to it. Instinctively, I’ve always preferred a world view of “noble enemies”, which I guess is what draws me to the classics (ie, literature from pagan times).

    • Umm … yeah, I would recommend the book, with the caveat that it is 100% theory. He’s arguing about dogma here, which is fine and interesting and useful when approaching the world, but it doesn’t address how people actually act. I’m agnostic on my most optimistic days, but I still know plenty of Christians who think along “pagan” lines (as defined by de Benoist). He also doesn’t consider at all any of the pagan Christianities that sprang up during the early Middle Ages, which sought to reconcile pagan culture with this new upstart of a religion.

      He quotes liberally from Nietzsche and other continental philosophers, which can be hard to follow, but I don’t see you having many problems with that.

      I read the book because I’m finishing up the research phase of writing a novel set in the Middle Ages, in a fictional kingdom that I super-imposed over Bratislava, Slovakia, at a time just after the royalty has converted to Christianity but the populace remains largely Slavic pagan. I knew how I wanted “Christianity” to function in the story but wasn’t sure what my “paganism” should be in opposition, wanting to do it justice and what-not. (And I, of course, will bear in mind all the messy ambiguities between the two extremes) So it was pretty much the perfect book for my purposes.

    • “… I’m finishing up the research phase of writing a novel set in the Middle Ages …”

      Well, thank god(s). It was becoming more distasteful, if not immoral, for you NOT to be writing a book by the day….

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