3 Traits of Editorial Success

MUD day 7:

Editors should be pleased by Malcolm Gladwell’s review in the latest New Yorker of Walter Isaccson’s Steve Jobs biography. In it, Gladwell argues that Jobs’s peculiar genius was not so much creative in nature as editorial. His sensibility, Gladwell writes, “was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him . . . and ruthlessly refining it.”

As I thought about the characteristics of Jobs’s genius after reading Gladwell’s review, I realized that in fact some of them are shared by successful editors. Though there may be more, here are three that came to mind immediately.

1. Trusting your own intuition more than user research. As noted in The New York Times obituary, Jobs preferred his own research and gut instinct to focus groups: “When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: ‘None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.'”

I learned the same lesson early in my editorial career in a seminar given by the estimable Pierce Hollingsworth. There’s no point in asking readers what they want, he said. They don’t know. It’s the editor’s job to figure that out on their behalf. Research might get you part way there, but in the end, it’s an editor’s intuition and judgment that finish the job.

2. Changing your mind. Like Emerson, Jobs believed that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. He was famous for making blanket statements like “no one wants to watch video on an iPod” only to reverse himself later. His flexibility was one reason Apple was able to dominate its industries for so long. Likewise, to be great at their craft, editors not only need strong opinions, but need to alter them when the facts prove them wrong.

3. Knowing but not worshipping the rules. In his review, Gladwell quotes Steve Jobs on the genesis of the Apple slogan, Think different:

“We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ‘Think differently’ wouldn’t hit the meaning for me.”

Jobs, of course, was right. People who let the rules master them would say, oh no, it should be “Think differently.” But those, like great editors, who master the rules, know better.

The parallels between the basis of Jobs’s success and that of great editors can only be taken so far. But there is, well, one more thing. As Gladwell implies, Jobs was ruthless. Though it’s not a personality trait that serves editors well, in their work, a touch of ruthlessness, a soupçon of Jobs-like jerkiness, is sometimes a necessity. Editors who aren’t willing to offend will never achieve their potential.

Connecting the Dots from Steve Jobs to Me

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” —Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

Steve Jobs and I were classmates at Reed College—we both matriculated in September 1972. I didn’t know him: he lived across the campus in the Old Dorm Block, while I was in one of the newer and more institutional cross-canyon dorms (later wisely demolished).

Steven Jobs Freshman PictureIf you were to poll Reedies from that era, how many could honestly say they remember Steve? Probably just a few. Even then, it seems, Steve was a private person, not even submitting his photo for the freshman directory.

Yet we must have crossed paths at some point in his short career at Reed (he dropped out after six months, but crashed in spare dorm rooms and audited classes for the next year and a half). It’s a small college—just a thousand students or so then—and a compact campus. Did I share a table with him in the campus dining hall? Or take him on in a game of pool in the Reed rec room? In his 1991 convocation speech at Reed he mentioned taking a Shakespeare class from Professor Svitavsky. So did I. Was it the same one?

I can only speculate. Most likely, I will never be able to connect those particular dots. Yet even so, I feel a powerful connection with Steve.

That connection first clicked into place a decade or so later, assisted by another Reed classmate.

My Freshman PhotoWhen I entered college, computers were still huge, whirring, alien, and, to me at least, slightly terrifying devices. In my ill-advised chemistry course, when we had the choice of solving a particularly complex series of computations by either going to the computer lab or sticking with our slide rules, I chose the slide rule. I bollixed up the calculations, but avoided the computer. It would be nearly 10 years before I touched one.

By 1982, I was a fifth-year graduate student in English at Cornell University. When the department announced that it had acquired a minicomputer for the use of dissertation writers like myself, I was once again faced with a choice between old and new technologies. Computer or typewriter? This time, despite the ungainly 8-inch floppy disks and the unfriendly green glow of the CRT, I chose the computer.

Though less menacing, the computer was still alien. My involvement with computers was a relationship of convenience for me, I felt, not a long-term affair.

But then one day, Joe, a Reed classmate who had recently entered Cornell’s MFA program, changed my view.  He walked into our computer lab (actually a small, dark closet in the upper reaches of Goldwin Smith Hall) hefting a box the size of a carry-on suitcase. As he snapped it open, he explained that it was a personal computer, an Osborne 1.

It was an epochal moment for me. The idea that someone like me could actually own and use a computer had never before occurred to me. But suddenly I realized that I not only could own a computer, but probably should.

Though he had in fact known Steve at Reed, Joe had chosen the Osborne over an Apple II. After some research, I likewise spurned Apple, buying a Kaypro II instead. Not until Steve’s second act at Apple and the introduction of the iMac would I begin my transformation into a full-blown Apple fanboy.

But make no mistake. The only reason Joe and I ended up owning computers, the only way that artsy, literary types like us would consider it advisable, was that Steve Jobs made it possible. It was he who made computers personal.

That may be why nearly 40 years later, as I connect the dots from him through his brilliant products to me, his death seems so personal as well. Like so many others, I will miss him, the friend I never quite met.