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Personal Branding

The Narrative Fallacy: Why You Shouldn’t Copy Steve Jobs

Let's stop pointing out the random habits of legends and acting like they are the keys to success. Life is a bit more complicated.


There are dozens of blog posts about Ben Franklin’s strict daily routine (and they all almost always include this picture), advocating that we should follow suit. Writers love to point out how Maya Angelou made sure she wrote in a hotel room every day to help give her a safe space to work. A young Steve Jobs lived an extremely sparse possession-free lifestyle, and thousands of techies have attempted to emulate this no-nonsense, minimalistic living style.

This kind of hero worship can be a good thing, it can be a guiding light. But this has also given rise to the dramatic oversimplification of entire lives. Headlines like “8 Ways to Think Like Warren Buffett” and “The Socratic Method of Great Living” garner retweets and clicks but they create a terrible feedback loop of writers cherry picking moments from someone’s life, distilling it all down to a blog post or even a book, and then a willing reader to believe that advice is the key to success.

Pictured: A young Steve Jobs in his minimalist apartment. Not pictured: his work ethic and all of his mistakes.

Pictured: A young Steve Jobs in his minimalist apartment. Not pictured: His work ethic and all of his mistakes.

What happens is we have wantrepreneurs and armchair creatives thinking they are walking in the footsteps of the greats by focusing on “productivity hacks” instead of, you know, doing the work. 

Even our modern day tycoons are not immune. Square founder Jack Dorsey copied Steve Jobs to an almost comical degree, believing it would make him a better entrepreneur. In Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton writes about Dorsey’s obsession: 

During one discussion with a well-known Apple designer who had been hired at Square, Jack heard that Jobs didn’t consider himself a CEO but rather an “editor.” Soon Jack started referring to himself as “the editor, not just the CEO” of Square. During one talk to employees, he announced: “I’ve often spoken to the editorial nature of what I think my job is. I think I’m just an editor.” Jack started saying “No one has ever done this before” about his products, an exact quote from a Jobs interview in early 2010 at a conference. Jack then adopted Jobs’s terms to describe new Square features, words like “magical,”“surprise,” and “delightful,” all of which Jobs had used onstage at Apple events.

In his bestselling book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb demonstrates how we humans are obsessed with creating narratives that do not exist, especially when those narratives support our outlook. If we believe that all successful entrepreneurs take naps once a day, we’ll surely remember every biography that mentions how Mark Zuckerberg loves his 2 p.m. siesta. Read enough and you’ll easily be able to pull anecdotes from anywhere to assemble what all “successful” people should do. “Once your mind is inhabited with a certain view of the world, you will tend to only consider instances proving you to be right. Paradoxically, the more information you have, the more justified you will feel in your views,” writes Taleb. He elaborates on our desire for narrative: 

Both the artistic and scientific enterprises are the product of our need to reduce dimensions and inflict some order on things. Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story , a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness. Myths impart order to the disorder of human perception and the perceived “chaos of human experience.”

Think of the startup myth of a bunch guys in a garage. Or the one that all founders have to work for 80-hour weeks to be successful.  Or how every successful designer is obsessive about every last detail. These “keys to success” create a culture and mythology around certain behavior that likely has little to do with the success of the person who practices it. What is worse, by forcing yourself to adopt the behavior of your idol, you may be supressing your true temperament, which, it turns out, could be the right mindset for you after all. We don’t need more Mark Zuckerberg-types creating startups or Stefan Sagmiester-types creating art. We need new ideas and new perspectives, which starts with owning who you uniquely are.

These “keys to success” create a culture and mythology around certain behavior that likely has little to do with the success of the person who practices it.

Studying the greats in such a simplistic way creates wizardry where none exists and elevates mere mortals to some unattainable standard. Think getting to bed early is the key to athletic performance? Tiger Woods could stay out until 3 a.m. partying and still dominate you on the golf course (and, well, he kinda did). Is a clean workspace essential for writing? Give Bob Dylan a six-pack of Coors and a notepad in the back of a minivan and he’d still write a better song than most.  Blog posts and books often advise us of the “one thing” we’ll need to really get that dream of ours going. Because, after all, that’s what notable person X did.  Articles like this exist mostly because “just put in the work” doesn’t exactly garner a ton of praise or Facebook likes. 

Even more puzzling: when we conclude that “all people who want to be successful at X should do Y” we ignore what Taleb calls “silent evidence.” There are a ton of burnt out tech entrepreneurs who went minimalist (à la Jobs) only to see their company fail. There are many writers who created a special writing space like Angelou only to never get a novel published. Stories proclaiming these habits as the “keys to success” rarely delve into the countless number of people that have those exact habits but never shook free from obscurity. Again, The Black Swan:

Let’s say you attribute the success of the nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac to his superior “realism,”“insights,”“sensitivity,”“treatment of characters,” “ ability to keep the reader riveted,” and so on. These may be deemed “superior” qualities that lead to superior performance if, and only if, those who lack what we call talent also lack these qualities. But what if there are dozens of comparable literary masterpieces that happened to perish? And, following my logic, if there are indeed many perished manuscripts with similar attributes, then, I regret to say, your idol Balzac was just the beneficiary of disproportionate luck compared to his peers. Furthermore, you may be committing an injustice to others by favoring him.   My point, I will repeat, is not that Balzac is untalented, but that he is less uniquely talented than we think.

It’s impossible for us to take a cursory glance at anyone’s life and boil down their success to a few key character traits. It satisfies our thirst to slap a narrative on everything, but this oversimplification is a disservice. This is not to say that all of our success is the result of luck. For sure, luck doesn’t hurt. But to act like success can be gleaned from a few “tips” is like glancing at the back cover of a book and telling people you’ve read it. 

We are living in a complex world and the path to success and fulfillment isn’t a straight line, it’s a labyrinth in the dark. And we all have to find our own way, make our own mythology. It’s a lot harder than following a listicle, but isn’t it a lot more fun?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (60)
  • Florencia

    Thank you, my views exactly. Every individual is unique in their own right; what works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others.

    By all means, people can aspire to being the “next Steve Jobs”; by that I refer not to Steve Jobs as an individual, but instead what he represents: independent thinking, originality, and creativity. Which does not mean that you will be dreaming of creating the next Apple, but be revolutionary in something you truly care about, in your own way.

    Another good point raised by the article: why do people associate success with working day and night? “Working hard” and “making things happen” are not necessarily a synonym of “getting close to burnout”. It is okay to work hard during the day and relax at night.

    • Resits50

      @lmApril responded I am, impressed that any body able to profit $9556 in 1 month on the internet. have you read this webpage———– (To open copy full link including ➡. )

      ➡.ws/warp

  • Abraham Lule

    This article is one word: accurate.
    I really enjoy reading your article Sean, thanks for sharing.

  • http://erniecordell.wordpress.com Ernie Cordell

    Parroting, aping: Somebody will always do this. I recall reading an article that cited the example of a fellow who fancied himself a Naturalist, so he chose to write in semi-obscurity. Apparently he had heard that Émile Zola wrote in a darkened room, so he embraced the custom, though his eyes were not suited to it.

  • http://www.kurtisfilms.com/ Kurtis Sensenig

    I like the article, Sean, good work! I’ve ready Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography too many times, but I always try to remember that while we can learn stuff from him, copying him too closely is a mistake. Especially since he was such a jerk, and he knew it (he wanted to make sure Isaacson didn’t sugarcoat that part of him).

  • Jonathan Patterson

    Great read! Also reminds me of the following quote by Austin Kleon… “When people give you advice they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.”

    • I AM TROLL

      That makes quite alot of sense thinking about it.

  • Soon Min

    Thanks for this. I completely agree that we shouldn’t be wantonly aping ‘great’ people in hopes that the aspects we copy turn us into them. After all, we don’t know the full story of their lives and what those actions meant to them.

    However, with the exception of those extreme cases you pointed out, I do see merit and usefulness in looking toward a hero/role model for not only their actions, but also as an act of self-inspiration. We all need fuel at points in our careers, and if wearing a mono-coloured wardrobe ala Steve Jobs makes me ‘feel’ that little bit more creative (or insert whatever word here), why not?

    It’s not very different when we as people buy into and use brands with the unspoken belief that its values rub off onto us. I suppose the question could be, where is that line between an unhealthy obsession/crutch, and a source of inspiration?

  • http://www.donttouchme.com/ shoobe01

    Seen a few of these lately, but this is the best one of them. I will try to remember and refer people to it in the future.

    What always bugs me about this hero worship, or even any of the “6 things successful people do before 6 am” lists is the inverse causality. Even IF true (thanks for some counter examples) most behaviors seem to be the result of the successful person’s persona, drive, etc. Emulating them is like changing your clothes or car… oh, wait, people do that also.

  • https://www.facebook.com/n.sakhai Navid Sakhai

    I couldn’t agree more.
    There is nothing simple in our world. There is always some chaotic consent to be miss calculated being the right one at the right place at the right moment is key, and we almost forget that we as who we are, to ourselves and our network of people is the most valuable asset there ever will be for our success. We only have to find a hobby worthy of our asset which happens to benefit our society and we might succeed the way we imagined or another way.
    Thanks for the article and the book.
    Be Victorious!

  • Pascal Duvergé

    Got it!
    I stop reading 99U and start working on my art😉

    • http://seanblanda.com/ Sean Blanda

      Crazy talk!

      • I AM TROLL

        I’m the authority on crazy talk, me being crazy an all.

    • Sasha

  • John Mayson

    The link to http://www.everydayminimalist.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/062b.jpg has “mailto:” in front of it, so it doesn’t work. Just an FYI…

  • Linda

    You’re not going to play Madison Square Garden with your cover band; however, there were some who started out in cover bands and eventually evolved into big names. The imitation part was just a starting point, and as you said, Sean, “we all have to find our own way, make our own mythology.” And wasn’t it Jobs who came up with “Think different(ly)?”

  • I AM TROLL

    Gotta agree with the article in many ways. Becoming a top quality troll has been down to hard work, there were no short cuts.

  • David Malek

    The first thing a minimalist should get rid of, is his/her iPad, iPhone and all the other iCrap.

  • jin choung

    This is so dead on.

    And it’s also why I’m skeptical of the journalism and tge instinct to ‘find the story’. In finding the story,they may well be distorting the reality and even subliminally imposing a structure and meaning that’s false.

    For me,this really became clear with the “behind the music” show. Struggling newbies, rocketing to stardom, the inevitable crash, the redemption at the end. Every band turns out to be EXACTLY the same!

    And “biopics” end up doing a similar kind of thing to their subjects. The form imposes the meaning.

    As for these life lesson kind of things, yes, they are patently ridiculous and is what’s wrong with advice in general and self-help in particular.

    What works for one person may not work at all for another. Few people can accurately gauge ALL the factors that contribute to their successes and failures so as to convey a useful lesson. Nobody knows shit.

    You have to find your own way and what works for you. Everything else is bullshit.

  • Chris Delani

    Steve Wozniak created Apple. Steve Jobs was a paper pusher and marketing guy. He never created and designed anything. Without “The Woz” its likely that Mr. Jobs would have simply been the most annoying waiter in California.

    • http://seanblanda.com/ Sean Blanda

      Except for that whole Pixar thing

      • Lyndon Williams

        Wasn’t that George Lucas’s first?

      • Ben weeks

        Yea but they hadn’t made a film. Steve kept them afloat at his own expense for 10 years-ish until toy story made them profitable. Then he engineered going public for leverage when Disney came to acquire them.

    • Mike

      And if “The Woz” didn’t have Steve Jobs he would have been a really bright life-long employee of HP that only people within HP would have heard of.

  • http://omundocomthiagovieira.wordpress.com Thiago Vieira

    What a great surprise this article is! I’m reading The Black Swam right now. It’s almost magical!😀

    I agree that focusing too much on being a copy of greater leaders is bad, because the contexts where they act are different from those where we act, for sure.

    What I think that’s useful is to deconstruct they: Slash them, tore into pieces, then carry on with what is useful to you.

    When I finish The Black Swam I’ll come back to read this article again.

  • Keith Fretz

    Who was Steve Jobs copying?

    • Thomas Middlemiß

      Probably no one and that’s why Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs.

  • Filip

    Implying golfers are athletes.

  • Manisha Sharma

    Great article… Really engaging!

  • http://www.jasonrowens.com/ Jason Owens

    Finally, a voice of reason in a sea of quick tips!

  • Justine Musk

    We look to narratives to teach us how to live; information makes the biggest impact when it comes with an emotional charge. Stories have survival value.

    Someone once described myths as “false on the outside, true on the inside”. People told and retold them down through the generations, evolving them to suit their purposes. So, over time, the boring parts got stripped away, the details kept changing, but what remained at core were the bones: the archetypal truths and characters that stayed relevant and familiar no matter what century you lived in (which made you want to share the story in the first place, or go see the latest Hollywood take on it).

    A powerful narrative is powerful because it engages the brain on multiple levels — including the symbolic, associative, nonvisual, intuitive part. That’s the ‘art’ part.

    Taking that away is like stealing the peanut of a peanut M&M and presenting somebody with the candy shell: 6 Steps To This, 15 Faster Ways To Be That. It’s appealing, and it tastes good, but it’s been robbed of the truth on the inside that gave it any real power in the first place.

  • Manuel Minino

    I’m just suprised to see this kind of stuff here… or actually, not? This literary piece rants about a model of popular “viral” posts, but this is a masterpiece of “virality” itself. Let’s go and check it out: We have a good and attractive title, check! with Steve jobs in it, check! by the way, a controversial subject that sure will get a lot of comments and shares, check! full of cleverly distributed keywords to adress all the people that reads the kind of blog posts that it rants about double check!!!… hmm… at the end, I prefer the good ol’ “Six steps to be have the perfect Dolly Parton boobs” kinda blog posts. At least you’ve got my attention, Mr. Blanda. And you got a comment. And maybe I will share it… WINNING!!

    • Manuel Minino

      Ok, I’m going to reply myself to point out something… have you noticed the URL of this article?? the-narrative-fallacy-only-idiots-copy-steve-jobs… WINNING!!!

    • Francis

      Yeah, but you answered this one, and did you answer the one about the perfect boobs?

  • Mike Open

    Most of the methods mentioned in this article are simply ways to empty the mind of the endless piles of cods-wallop that infect those who seek ‘success’ – especially if ‘success’ is measured in monetary terms. Doubtless they might help those hell-bent on ‘making an impact’ in separating endeavour from enlightenment, but they are yet more illusions, even if the illusion is more in the method than in the result.

  • rajkotecha

    Thanks Sean, this is important; we get one life and most of the time a great life is the one you invented, that works for you and the people around you.

    Copying others is ok, in fact at the beginning it’s often essential when you don’t know what to do.

    Babies are great example, it’s how they learn, and avoid a lot problems. In this context mimicking is one of nature’s elegant solutions. Of course you hope to see them evolve and blaze their own trail at some pt.

    Taleb reminds me of an overarching principle, not that we should try to spot black swans, but that we can’t, and sometimes following the crowd doesn’t work, or as you’ve pointed out can be a lost opportunity.

    I think the answer is to try to understand what has worked for others and what works for us.

  • http://hiredresume.com Jerad Maplethorpe

    I love this line:

    “… to act like success can be gleaned from a few “tips” is like glancing at the back cover of a book and telling people you’ve read it.”

    Emulation is the best way to be unauthentic. Certainly there are lessons to be learned from the greats, but, as you said, wouldn’t it be awesome to be remembered for your own uniqueness? Great advice in this article!

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