Sunday, October 30, 2011

Steve Jobs, intuition, and genius

Walter Isaacson, biographer of both Einstein and Steve Jobs, on smarts, intuition and innovation.

NYTimes: ONE of the questions I wrestled with when writing about Steve Jobs was how smart he was. On the surface, this should not have been much of an issue. You’d assume the obvious answer was: he was really, really smart. Maybe even worth three or four reallys. After all, he was the most innovative and successful business leader of our era and embodied the Silicon Valley dream writ large: he created a start-up in his parents’ garage and built it into the world’s most valuable company.

But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. I thought about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Mr. Gates devoured science books as a vacation pleasure. But then something else occurred to me: Mr. Gates never made the iPod. Instead, he made the Zune.

So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.

He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead ... Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri Poincaré, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories, namely that there is no such thing as absolute time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time. (O.K., it’s not that simple, but that’s why he was Einstein and we’re not.)

... Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.

Mr. Jobs’s genius wasn’t, as even his fanboys admit, in the same quantum orbit as Einstein’s. So it’s probably best to ratchet the rhetoric down a notch and call it ingenuity. Bill Gates is super-smart, but Steve Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.

In the world of invention and innovation, that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors. This was Mr. Jobs’s specialty. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” he said. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one’s ability to be emotionally attuned to others. Mr. Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people, which caused some to think he lacked basic emotional awareness. In fact, it was the opposite. He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing.

... China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.


Jeff Kolb said...

Why don't people much mention luck when revisiting the life of recently deceased superstars? It would be difficult to demonstrate, even roughly, how much of Jobs position, popularity, and success were attributable to winning a few important rolls of the die. But I suspect we over-estimate the extremity of Jobs (and others) skills, and under-estimate how much the guy gained from circumstances outside his control. I have particular suspicions along these lines when it comes to CEOs, whose job aggregates the efforts of many and who, I contend, are essentially required by corporate culture and market forces to foster illusions of skill.

David Stern said...

I saw a day or two ago (can't remember where) that it is the ability to use luck to your advantage that is the key to success. A lot of people don't realise why something might be important or have the knowledge or willingness to make the effort to use it.

Nano Nymous said...

The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.

It's a good piece but the insufferable fanboyism bleeds through even in it. For all the supposed genius in industrial design, there is absolutely nothing in common between different incarnations of Macs: plain vanilla box with an unusable mouse Macintosh II, translucent soap box with an unusable keyboard original iMac, lampstand iMac G4 with its originally ridiculously small screen, solid silver block PowerMac G5, and today's slick all-in-ones. The only common thing behind these widely disparate hardwares and functionalities is genius of marketing. The World's most successful salesman is amazing achievement but not anywhere enough to put the name on the same page with Einstein's.

Sean Sullivan said...

As a self-assessed smart guy (but not so imaginative), I've always dismissed this quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” as inspirational rather than factual.  And I when I repeat it, I usually append: but hard work is more important than both.  But lately I've encountered some instances where being really smart might have been counterproductive.

I've become acquainted with some truly brilliant physics experimentalists developing a technology with the fundamental virtue of being exceptionally simple.  But as this tech gets closer to actual implementation, a lot of little engineering problems have arisen.  Because these men and women developing it are so excellent and skilled (particularly the PI), they quickly adopt solutions to these problems.  But the problems continue to appear, and the technology quickly gets another appendage.  At this point the original simplicity is lost and, more importantly, it still doesn't really work.  And I've begun to wonder: would they have been better off if they weren't quite so smart to begin with?  Maybe they wouldn't have fixed just fixed the bug quickly and moved on, but would have had to spend more time developing a less "ingenious" solution?  Just a thought.

In any event, I still think hard-working is an indispensable quality.  ;)

ps. Thanks for your provocative posts, Prof. Hsu.

Justin Loe said...

I believe the source for this quote of Feynman's was one of his popular books, but Feynman attempted to derive relativity based on the information that Einstein knew at the time and stated something to the effect "I don't know how he did it." Although it might be a stretch to suggest that Einstein was an order of magnitude superior to other physicists of his time, I believe the evidence supports it. Additionally, the recent analyses of Einstein's brain tissue found that his parietal lobe was substantially different from the rest of us. Although it is probably unwise to extrapolate alternative histories if Einstein had never lived, but I think that relativity might have emerged 25 years later had Einstein never lived. My pure speculation.

quote: " Within the inferior parietal lobule, the supramarginal gyrus (a ridge on the cortical surface) was undivided by a major sulcus. Without that division, a more efficient axonal connectivity of this anomalous architecture may have given Einstein—and here is the payoff of the anatomy lesson—“an extraordinarily large expanse of highly integrated cortex within a functional network.”"

silkop said...

I see a similar phenomenon in software engineering. It's a sort of arrogant relearned masochistic stupidity. Inventing allegedly smart solutions for problems that wouldn't exist if the inventors hadn't been so "smart" in the first place (but rather more inclined to think strategically and consider the value of simplicity). Give a person a really big gun and he'll shoot himself in the foot with it.

silkop said...

We should also not forget the most important meta-skill of persuading other people that you're successful and of successfully capturing credit for others' work. Judging from the opinions about Steve Jobs, he must have been a true master in that area.

lovehorrorfilms said...

Good luck and bad luck tend to cancel out if you live long enough.  One can luck into a million dollars,  but becoming a billionaire requires you to know what to do with luck.  People get lucky everyday; but lack the brains to recognize and exploit opportunities.  

lovehorrorfilms said...

I don't agree with the distinction Isaacson makes between intelligence and intuition.   Why is the intelligence of Steve Jobs and Einstein being downgraded because they used intuition instead of analytical ability?  Non-linear thinking is just as much a part of intelligence as brute processing power.  Indeed any cognitive ability that allows one to adapt their environment to their advantage should be considered part of intelligence, and intuition is certainly adaptive.

BoricuaDude said...

An ex-physicist reflects on the role intuition plays in physics, finance and contrasts with Kahneman's notion of

BoricuaDude said...

An ex-physicist reflects on the role intuition plays in physics, finance; talks briefly about the way
Daniel Kahneman thinks of intuition in his recent book:

steve hsu said...

Nice! I've heard good things about Derman's new book. I like Keynes' comments on Newton's powers of concentration.

Robert Rota said...

If you had to choose between the bioelectric system responsible for your consciousness or subconsciousness to solve a problem which would you choose? I suspect the facility causing "intuition" is greater in scale. 

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Intuition said...

Developing intuition means to become
more aware of what is going on around us. By cultivating this, you can greatly
improve your overall living.

The advantages of Developing

1. Unleashes your imagination and creativity

2. Helps identify and address problems

3. Reduce stress more effectively

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

Tell us more!

Intuition said...


LaurentMelchiorTellier said...


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