“He would have made an excellent King of France,” is a quote about Steve Jobs that has always tickled me in its aptness. (The quote came from Jeff Raskin, an early Apple employee.) It speaks perfectly to Jobs’ regal status which he fully believed in and was fed relentlessly by press and fans alike. It represents Steve Jobs, in all his good and bad. His complexity: he achieved truly great things, but he thought you were less than him, whether he met you or not. It, also to me, opens the door to a lengthy conversation around how much of a jerk is it OK to be if you are changing the world. (Presumably for the better.)
Soon after Steve Jobs died, I wrote a post that posited that we would “now get to find out if Steve Jobs was a great man, or if Apple is a great company.” My bet was on Jobs. And, although Apple still sits on piles of money, I’d say that I won that bet. Apple has done nothing earthshakingly new since the crown of Apple passed to Tim Cook. They just polish what they already have. Samsung and many other companies jump over that same, lower, bar. Most of my personal technology is still Apple, but their ownership of me is no longer unassailable.
But now we have a new “King of France,” in all the ways of good and bad, in Elon Musk. It’s actually rather eerie, the similarities of how they treat people and how they think in ways that others find hard to do. And let me say quite clearly, I am not suggesting that if we all started treating people poorly, we’d all be more successful. I, for one, think a huge problem in modern America is how narrowly we have come to define the term, “success.”
Anyone who knows me or my writings knows that I am a car nut. Since I was a kid I have read and mused about electric cars and why they could never succeed: because there was no refueling infrastructure. So they were dead out of the gate. (Or at least 100 miles or so later.)
Then along comes Elon Musk who says, “OK, I guess we’ll build a refueling infrastructure.”
It’s so ridiculously simple. Rather like putting apps on a handheld phone/computer, but only one person said, “Let’s do it” while everyone else said, “It can’t be done” (or didn’t think about it at all).
The lease on my wife’s Chevy Volt recently came to an end. It has been replaced by a Tesla Model 3. After the first day, I said to my wife, “It’s like driving my Mac.” You can really feel where Musk conceded on the whole “cars should have 4 wheels” tradition, but after that, nothing was sacrosanct. I am not saying it is the perfect car, but it represents such exciting thinking in an industry that has generally been so incremental. The Volt was quickly resigned to being a commuter appliance, but we both love driving that Tesla.
My ’71 Buick Riviera essentially runs like a 2019 BMW. I put flammable liquid in a tank, turn it into an explosive fuel-air mixture, detonate it and use the explosive force to push me down the road. That formula essentially has not changed since Karl Benz got it running in 1885. Thank goodness that other industries have been a little faster to embrace change, otherwise you’d be reading this as a hand-written letter, snail-mailed on parchment.
I’m actually rather proud that an American car, built in an American factory with American workers is leading the world – in a manufacturing-heavy industry!
But it asks us to change our thinking. Embrace the possibility of new.
Recently, I bought some Apple AirPods. You know, those geeky-looking ear pods with no wires. I must admit they still look weird to me. But they are perfect for helping me dictate notes to myself as I stroll around.
I got great help from a pundit online (name lost) who asked, “How resistant to change are we, when we think that having wires hanging from our ears looks less silly than not having wires hanging from our ears?” – I relented and bought the AirPods the next day….
Similarly, something that often gets brought up about Tesla is that people don’t want to spend 40 minutes “refueling” their car. I had been taking it as a valid point – that filling up with electrons just takes longer – but today I looked at it in a different way.
99% of the time I fill my gasoline cars, I do it at Mesa Fuel Depot. Largely because it is a half-mile from my house, but also because it is a local business run by good folk who support the community. So, usually when my tank is around half empty, I head over there and, if they are not too busy, I pull in and refuel. Generally takes 5-10 mins, hopefully not when I’m rushing to a meeting.
99% of the time I refuel my Tesla, it is with the electron pump in my driveway. I pull in at night, hook it up and retire. And I start each day with a full 300 mile tank.
So, in truth, I spend much less time refueling the Tesla than the Riviera or my woody wagon. Only on the rare trips that go beyond 300 miles do I need to bother actually making a special stop to refuel.
My point in telling all this is that Elon Musk, like Steve Jobs before him, did not feel chained to existing ways of doing things. They saw beyond that. They seem to have started with, “What would be amazing?” and worked backwards. And the problems that some of us have with their solutions are that we have not necessarily caught up yet or recomputed our standards of “normal.”
As I have been known to say to clients; The answer to polishing a turd is very rarely found in polishing harder… In my world, a regular part of work is showing a client that something needs replacing, not fixing. That the answer to their issue is not just a pithy new headline, or getting a new logo; the answer starts with re-imagining the perfect relationship.
So, the question for you is:
What would be amazing in your world?
The biggest problem with the tech giants is not their monopolistic control of the market, it is their unrestrained and growing control of Americans’ behavior. The power that the large social media companies wield over our lives and the level to which they are controlling us is frightening.
Imagine if we used our current experience to reinvent schools and redesign cities. If we had a mixture of learning online with “playing” on-site; if we gave less real estate to our cars and more to housing. The beauty about going through such a time of fracture is that the opportunity cost for deploying bold ideas seems low.
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