No x 1000
On Apple and success we love to hate
Just a quick one to say, this letter has gone paid as of last week, which means no more 5 for Friday emails if you’re not a paid supporter. I’d love for you to join in, though, but it’s okay if you don’t want to yet!
I love Apple.
And since I’ve followed the company I’ve been struck by the paradoxes they embody, especially how, for a company whose success is dependent on people paying high prices, it’s funny how they keep succeeding when everyone says they can’t be bothered to pay those prices. Who is buying then, you wonder?
But this is not about Apple. I mean, it kind of is, but it’s really about success, and about human behaviour and psychology and how we respond when things aren’t the way we think they should be. Apple is just the lens for today. (If you hate the company that’s okay — you don’t have to change how you feel.)
See, I used to love to hate Apple, like many (including several friends) still do, but that changed slowly over the years about the same time in my life that I realised something clearly for the first time: that success thrives off of truth.
That is, for anyone to be succeeding at anything, they are, knowingly or otherwise, tapping into something true about the world and about human nature. And when that success is consistently repeated, it’s likely that they’re tapping into that truth very deliberately, even if they can’t put it into words.
In other words, studying the successful is a brilliant way to learn about what is true. And let’s be clear: this only works if you study them, not idolise or demonise them. This is not to say the successful are heroes, or that they’re villains. They may be, but there’s a place I think for simply trying to identify the answer to the question: What did they tap into?
My attitude toward Apple changed when I realised this. (My attitude toward the Kardashians, too — who I still don’t have much love for.)
Before then I used to buy the popular idea that they were only successful because they sold overpriced things and made them look cool. You’ll see people say things like, “It’s just marketing,” or “just branding,” or “people are just sheep.” But that’s not very different from a market trader in Lagos who’s convinced that the success of her fellow trader is only because she’s using “jazz,” or “juju” — some form of magic.
That’s a common copout, though, when people succeed who we think should not succeed. We often tend to attribute it to luck or fate or some other spiritual principle. I know someone who was a very successful academic, and everyone thought he was just lucky, but the truth was he often tried and failed at so many things he was almost bound to win at some, and those wins were all people saw.
Yes, there’s luck, of course, which is why success isn’t easy to replicate — you really do have to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s not something you can plan. But your participation is equally important: both in increasing your chances by multiple attempts and in being ready for the chances you get. It’s like a football player who’s lucky to get the ball, but they’ve been training and they’re also well positioned in the moment. Luck does have to meet preparation.
So yes, luck matters, but to say it’s all about luck is as much a lie as to say it’s all about hard work. It’s both, and they are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Since we can’t control luck, though, we have to focus on what we can. And one of the most important things we can focus on is decisions and execution.
To use the football striker metaphor, all the training and all the being in the right position comes down to that one moment before the goal and deciding what to do with the ball. And then executing on that. The execution is the visible expression of the internal decision, so both are two parts of one thing but I’m separating them because, well, executing brilliantly on a bad decision isn’t much use.
And making the right decisions is one of the things Apple is brilliant at.
And one of the most important principles underlying that is a statement long associated with the company:
For every yes, a thousand nos.
They’re the thing people who hate Apple most complain about. Removing the floppy disk. Removing the headphone jack. Changing the keyboard (that one hasn’t worked out).
But these nos are really key to one of the most powerful principles underlying their success: where others try to have it all, Apple makes the hard choices. They choose to focus on some things while ignoring others, and trusting that it’ll pay off. You’ve probably often heard it said that saying no is one of the most important skills in life, and I agree, but I’ll rather rephrase it, “saying no to whatever stands in the way of your yes.”
People laughed when they said removing the headphone jack was an act of courage on their part. Perhaps they shouldn’t have said that but I think they did because they really meant it. It was a bold move, interpreted then as a cash grab to just push AirPods, but it was really a bet that the future was wireless, not wired. And to them, that yes meant it was time to say no to the jack on their most popular computer.
I don’t know about you, but every time I’ve failed at stuff that matters it was because I said yes to a competing thing, without realising it. Taking on something without realising that means I won’t be able to take on others. Trying to give my attention in two ways and both suffering for it. It’s almost like if I said yes to my wife without realising that meant a no to every other woman in the world as far as that level of intimacy is concerned. Many spouses and partners have learned, painfully, how that tends to play out.
Success, however you define it, is in the tradeoffs.
What yes will you say a thousand nos for?
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