The Best Storytelling On ...

gladwell and jobs

Steve Jobs offers so many classic story angles, not the least being the prodigal son banished only to return the “homeland” to glory.

As discussed last week, he knew how to cultivate Apple’s story in a way that had little to do with words.

But what about the third-party storytelling on Mr. Jobs?

I’ve culled through the archives to capture what I consider to be the best stories on Steve Jobs.

The first one comes from master storyteller Malcom Gladwell whose fresh take on David versus Goliath was highlighted in this forum.

His story on Steve Jobs in The New Yorker, “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple and the Truth About Innovation,” appeared only a few months ago.

An Ikea-ish lead starts the piece:

In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.

While the “Jobs ‘borrows’ from XEROX PARC” tale has been told a zillion times, Gladwell manages to uncover fresh fodder as only Gladwell can.

He tracks down Dean Hovey, the man hired by Jobs to design Apple’s computer mouse. Described as “lean and healthy in a Northern California yoga-and-yogurt sort of way,” Hovey recounts how this project went down:

‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

If you think about it, the mouse does have that deodorant ball feel to it.

Hovey tried to negotiate a royalty deal on the mouse but Jobs was having none of it and paid out a flat fee of roughly $100K.

After the stage-setting, Gladwell brings out the wrinkle.

As illustrated by his instruction to Hovey, Jobs didn’t want to reproduce what he saw at Xerox PARC. He wanted to build upon and improve on their innovations.

The narrative continues with the introduction of the final character in the story, an optical engineer named Gary Starkweather, the brains behind the laser printer.

Gladwell captures Starkweather’s persona with a wonderful sentence that breaks the word-count rule handed down in high school English:

He is a solid and irrepressibly cheerful man, with large, practical hands and the engineer’s gift of pretending that what is impossibly difficult is actually pretty easy, once you shave off a bit here, and remember some of your high-school calculus, and realize that the thing that you thought should go in left to right should actually go in right to left.

Gladwell often allows himself one word per essay that prompts a visit to the dictionary. In this piece, it’s “fecundity,” the intellectual productivity of a creative imagination.

So now you know.

Anyway, the piece goes on to capture Starkweather’s never-ending battles with the Xerox brass and other naysayers during his quest to translate the laser printer technology into a real consumer product.

Who does this sound like?

Somehow, Gladwell even makes a plausible comparison to Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones’ album “Exile on Main Street” producing this quip:

Only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one.

I won’t tell you how the story ends.

But rest assured there’s a surprise waiting for you at the finish line.

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