Steve Jobs–A Massive Online Original Case Study

Less than two years after his death, Steve Jobs continues to fascinate us. His accomplishments at Apple and Pixar have solidified his place in history as one of the most innovative thinkers of modern times. As we get a deeper glimpse into his life with the upcoming JOBS film starring Ashton Kutcher, a lot of us will begin to reflect on how he reached those pinnacles of success. One way to conceptualize it is to see how he did so by acting more like fox than a hedgehog.

In his famous essay, “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” Isaiah Berlin made the distinction between two types of thinkers–foxes and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are experts in their discipline. The know a lot about one thing. They reduce a complex world to a few key principles. They are more likely to take contradictory evidence and shape it to fit their existing worldview rather than update their own notions. Hedgehogs spend most of their time with their noses to the ground, constantly refining their existing notions and ideas.

In contrast, foxes know a little about a lot of things. They look for solutions to problems that weren’t tried before. Foxes tend to be agnostic about the value of their own ideas. They’re open to trying new ones when current ones aren’t working. When faced with contradictory evidence, they are more willing to abandon existing ways of thinking and embrace new notions. Foxes think that a complex world can’t be reduced to a few general principles. They have their noses in the air, trying to put all kinds of inputs together in an innovative way people haven’t seen before.

Steve Jobs was a fox. Jobs was not a true expert in any field. Although highly intelligent, he was not a master coder, superior computer engineer, artist, or philosopher. Instead, he knew a little about many things, whether it was design, Eastern philosophy, or a computer’s circuit board. His key advantage over others, what made him a genius, was that he brought all of these ideas together to create something radically new. For example, when designing the Macintosh computer, Jobs wanted to include multiple fonts with serif and sans serif typefaces, inspired by a course in calligraphy he took in college. Studying Zen Buddhism made him committed to simplicity in design. When he needed hedgehogs–i.e., engineers–he just hired the best ones he could find.

Of course, Jobs was also a hedgehog at times. No one could convince him that flashiness or pure functionality in a product was preferable to simple, elegant design. Jobs also constantly sorted the world out between what he thought was the best ever and the worst, as if the world could be divided only between the two camps.

In contrast, Bill Gates at Microsoft was a hedgehog. Gates was a gifted coder and software designer, but rarely ventured intellectually out of that world. Gates designed software with functionality primarily in mind. When problems with the operating system came up, Microsoft engineers relied on existing solutions. Gates were very successful at spreading one key idea–Windows–around the world. But Windows was not nearly as transformative and innovative as Apple products were.

Through Degreed, users can also track what they’ve learned over a lifetime, such as the books they read, the conventions they attend, and the films they watch. Degreed validates all of a person’s lifelong learning, something that was not available to Jobs. By measuring and recognizing all of the things we do, Degreed helps individuals realize they are foxes and when to leverage the hedgehogs in their network.

Today’s business world needs more foxes. People and companies have a much better chance at introducing innovative new ideas and products when they combine what they already know in unique ways. If individuals can track and understand what they have learned over a lifetime, no matter the source or type, then we will have more foxes bringing new innovations to the world.

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