Steve Jobs’ Parable of the Stones

lost-interview[See Update at end of post.]

This post is not about investing. [***] In fact, let’s get that out of the way: Sell your Apple stock and quit worrying about it. Or buy it and quit worrying about it. Just stop worrying about Apple, the stock. Better yet, just stop worrying, period.

At the bottom of this post is a long quote from a documentary that was comprised of a 70 minute interview with Steve Jobs recorded in 1995. Parts of the interview were edited into a 1996 PBS documentary by Robert X. Cringely called, The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires . The full interview was released in 2011 under the title, Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. The portion I’ve included below is quoted from a transcript I found on Fortune.com.

I post it today with the following observation. So much of Apple reporting and punditry and financial analysis is reduced to sound-bites and silly-sounding obviousness about what Apple should do, or not do — what products they should bring out, or not bring out, whether or not they should have a dividend and declare that the “era of innovation and growth” is over. Or not.

Those who have used the company’s products for as long as I have know that Apple’s success (and failures) have rarely hinged on “the idea.” Speed to market has never been a part of the culture — or their forumla for past successes, or their reasons for past failures.

Execution is the key to their success (and the fault of their failures).

I post this not as a suggestion that Apple’s stock is a good buy, or not. (As I said, I think if you’re worrying about that question, you should avoid the stock — buy an index fund, or something.)

I do know this: The company’s pipeline is not dry. And, whether the products come out in September or December only matters to investors, not those of us who use the products.

Quote from Steve Jobs, 1995:

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

And so we had a lot of great ideas when we started [the Mac]. But what I’ve always felt that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like is like when I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

And one day he said to me, “come on into my garage I want to show you something.” And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.”

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.

And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.

That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.

Update: A discussion about this post on Hacker News is interesting. After a lively debate over my wasting time writing about Apple stock (note: the context of this post was in the hours after the company has released quarterly numbers) and my use of the word “parable” (which I picked up from CNN.com when they first posted it a few years ago), the comments get around to the point I believe Jobs was trying to make — a point that those who want to create products and build business of any kind should consider.