Woz's commitment to lifelong discovery

Why do people still care what Steve Wozniak has to say about a company he left 25 years ago? Because for "Woz" it's most definitely the journey, not the destination.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

He may be the co-founder of Apple Computers, but Steve Wozniak doesn't judge his success by the success of Apple, or how much money he has or hasn't made. It's in his lifelong journey of innovation and passion for the new that gives Woz a reason to get up in the morning, leading him from HP to Apple to a return to college, and even teaching year 5 students for many years.

Visiting Australia on his "Woz Live" tour of speaking engagements, Steve Wozniak has been re-telling his personal story. From a childhood as the son of a Lockheed engineer to his most recent work as chief scientist of Fusion-io, and a few things in between. Without that little thing in between called Apple Computers, he wouldn't have been speaking to a room full of thousands of business leaders, who all paid big dollars to be there.

It was hard not to see a quiet conflict in the room. The business people wanted to know about being like Apple — being the biggest company in the world, and getting inside the head of Woz's Apple compatriot, Steve Jobs. But "Woz" is an avowed engineer. He has never cared much for the process of selling technology; just about finding new horizons to explore. Woz batted away so many questions that would have offered business seminar gold.

How did you get along so well with someone so famously hard to work with?
"We were friends since school days; I never saw that side of Steve."

Do you regret leaving Apple before some of its greatest innovations arrived?
"I do miss the idea of having been there in the room while these things were happening, but I've been very happy to consume them."

How do you hire a great engineer?
"I don't know."

And any question that included the phrase "biggest company in the world"...
"Well, biggest market capitalisation ... but there are many ways to define 'biggest', right?"

Numerous efforts by the host to get Woz to explore the business perspective on things he had just said were met with confusion. Woz is an explorer, an innovator, a lifelong learner. A creative engineer with a childlike, open mind. How those ideas are applied to the practice of business seems to be part of a parallel universe that he has no interest in understanding. Any business assumption or assertion was met with resistance; deflected in order to move the questions back to the ideas that he thrives on.

Throughout his talk, he explained the ways in which he roamed from idea to idea in the early days of being friends with Jobs. Each time he found some cool, new gadget to build, Jobs would find a way to sell it so they could make a bit of money to fund the next project. What was clear was that this latter part was a foreign concept for Wozniak. The sales created a resource to assist in exploring new horizons. Nothing more.

Listening to Woz, it seemed that for Jobs, those horizons appeared to be a search to join the ranks of history's great minds. Jobs was driven by a desire to create something that people remember you for.

For Wozniak himself, those horizons were always about the engineering. For Wozniak, engineering and creativity were one and the same.

With that understanding, Woz stands as an icon. Someone so heavily associated with the great computing revolution is proud of his life's work, most precisely because of how he has never let it change his fundamental approach to life. He is in all things an engineer, and deeply committed to lifelong learning and exploration.

After Apple, Wozniak founded CL9, a company that sold the first universal remote controls. He also became a school teacher, teaching year 5 students for eight years. As someone who had donated money to education initiatives, he felt that if you believe in something, you need to give yourself to it.

So much innocence pervaded the way that Woz spoke. Not in any negative sense, but with a positive, creative voice that searches for possibility, and simply moves past anything he doesn't care for.

And this is exactly where Woz really does have a lot to offer to the business thinker. If they're really paying attention, it is exactly his open mind that is needed more than ever in business today.

Woz frequently rails against exploration being squeezed out of education and business thinking. He believes in the power of emotional connection with maths, reading and all education. He believes that workplaces need to be fun in order to give employees the room to push themselves that little bit further, and that staff should be treated like family. That staff should be encouraged to talk casually across departments, so they all understand how different disciplines contribute to the final output.

Woz has opened and reopened his mind many times to what new horizons were waiting to be explored, never fixing on a particular expertise that would eventually see him passed by.

He believes that we should let our children feel like computers are an extension of their body, and that those kids who do will be the ones in the next generation to create the next Facebook. He wants computers to become conscious, and says that conscious computers could be the perfect school teachers. If his kids were starting college now, he'd encourage them to focus on voice and sound recognition, because getting that right will be the next big revolution.

The open mind, the lifelong discovery, the unstoppable force of "what comes next". Steve Wozniak's outlook should be an inspiration to anyone trying to keep up with the 21st century. To never fix your gaze on any short-term goalposts, you may just manage to maintain your long-term relevance in whatever field you choose to make your own.

 

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