Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Move forward

By Saliya Weerakoon

It was late in the year 2000 when I first heard of Steve Jobs, through the words of my marketing teacher, Ravi Banuthevan. His passionate recounting of Apple’s ‘Think different’ campaign was spellbinding. 

Have you ever felt that electric spark of inspiration when you learn about a visionary leader? Jobs was that spark for me, despite his many imperfections. What made him so remarkable? Was it his relentless drive, his daring to be different, or perhaps his ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary? 

Over the years, I realised that true greatness isn’t about being flawless; it’s about embracing our imperfections and learning to be better, and if possible, to change our circle of influence. 

If Apple’s ‘1984’ campaign was a masterpiece, ‘Think different’ hit the notes of Mozart. ‘Think different’ was universal and timeless. 

Round pegs in square holes

Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, the two authors of ‘Becoming Steve Jobs’ captured the ‘Think different’ campaign’s inside story. I quote: 

“When the time came for Clow to present his work, he and his team had ‘Think different’. Steve hesitated briefly when shown the first boards for the campaign, which paired the phrase with photos of noteworthy creative mavericks. His worry? That any campaign celebrating individual genius would suffer from the idea that Steve was simply out to celebrate his own creative genius. But he went with Chiat\Day anyway.

“‘His decisiveness was so different from the crew that had been there,’ Clow remembers. ‘No sending things off to some marketing exec somewhere for approval, no vetting by some committee. In the old regime, you never knew who was making the decision. With Steve, it was totally different. It was him and me. You don’t get that at any companies – no CEO gets involved the way he does.’ 

“The campaign went through several iterations over the course of a few anxious weeks, with Steve fretting the details right up until the final night. Clow pushed hard for Apple to go with a recording of Steve narrating the stirring free-verse essay that elaborated upon the campaign’s motto. He sent the studio that was to broadcast the ad during the network premiere of ‘Toy Story,’ both Steve’s version and another read by the actor Richard Dreyfuss. In the morning, Steve called Clow to tell him that they had to run Dreyfuss’ version. ‘If we go with mine,’ Steve said, ‘it will become about me. And this can’t be about me. It’s about the company.’ 

“It was not the decision of an egomaniac, of someone only put for himself. ‘Which is why,’ Clow remembers, ‘he is the real genius and I am just the ad guy.’ So on the day of the broadcast, it was Dreyfuss’ voice behind a slideshow of portraits of Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, Miles Davis, Frank Lloyd Wright, Amelia Earhart, Charlie Chaplin, and Thomas Edison, among others.”

‘Think different,’ launched in 1997, was after Steve’s return to Apple, to save Apple from inevitable bankruptcy. Dreyfuss’ voice captured the soulful narrative: 

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round peg in the square holes. 

“The one who sees things differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. 

“About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. 

“Maybe they have to be crazy. 

“How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? 

“We make tools for these kinds of people. 

“While some see them as crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” 

This is the most beautiful creative copy I have seen in my life. It touches the soul. It pierces through your heart. It’s universal. It’s for everyone. It’s for you and for me. Because there is a rebel in everyone. There is a side of all of us, never explored because of what others may think. If you are reading this, break free for once. Imperfections we all have; that should not deter you. 

A student, a leader

‘Becoming Steve Jobs’ was written by Schlender and Tetzeli after countless stories and half-truths about Jobs. Just like everyone, he was imperfect. But after reading and watching him for years, I see a student in him. That’s probably why Laurene, his wife, said he was a “learning machine”. 

Born on 24 February 1955 in San Francisco, Jobs was given up for adoption by his birth mother, Joanna Schieble. His biological father was Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian PhD candidate studying Political Science in 1954. However, a childless working couple, Paul and Clara Jobs, adopted him just a few days after his birth. 

If you are a critic of Jobs, yes he was imperfect, just like you and me. However, this man moved forward, created Apple, got fired as he started from Apple (there are counterclaims for this), created NeXT, created Pixar, got back to Apple to save the company from bankruptcy, and battled with pancreatic cancer before his demise. He led the personal computer revolution and created multiple industries. 

On a lighter note, if you are using the Apple brand, it was actually the brainchild of a half-Syrian, and distributed through a supply chain managed by millions of people in over 50 countries, with significant contributions from China, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, and Israel. 

The successor of Jobs in 2011, Tim Cook, was a Baptist; his father was a shipyard worker and his mother was a pharmacist. Cook’s rise was attributed to his humility and ability to bring diverse stakeholders to a common objective. 

Today, Apple is designed in California and made by millions of people world over with different religious beliefs, colours, shapes, sizes, genders, and sexual orientations. That’s the truth and leadership matters. 

‘Effortless is a myth’

Why Steve Jobs now? 

Perhaps the most watched commencement address in the world was given by Jobs at Stanford University. I watched it multiple times. Have you? I liked that speech, because the story was authentic and it showcased his vulnerability. 

All records are meant to be broken. His speech was great, but Roger Federer gave an insanely great commencement address at Dartmouth University. 

Since the age of nine, I have played team sports. Individual sports were not my cup of tea. However, how could you miss a Federer-Nadal final? Federer is legendary. A fantastic global icon. He was never an egoistic, megalomaniac celebrity. But at Dartmouth University, he revealed to the world why he was a legend. He was vulnerable, opened out, and it’s a speech worth watching, not once but many times. 

Here are handpicked excerpts from his speech: 

“Hello, Class of 2024!

“It’s an incredible feeling to be here with you.

“I am so excited to join you today.

‘Really, you have no idea how excited I am. Keep in mind, this is literally the second time I have ever set foot on a college campus. Second time ever.

“But for some reason, you are giving me a doctorate degree.

“I just came here to give a speech, but I get to go home as ‘Dr. Roger’. That’s a pretty nice bonus.

“‘Dr. Roger’. This has to be my most unexpected victory ever!

“President Beilock, the Board of Trustees, faculty members – thank you for this honour.

“President Beilock, I’m incredibly grateful. And I’ll try my best not to choke.

“I’m a little outside my comfort zone today. This is not my usual scene…

“And these are not my usual clothes.

“Do you dress like this every day at Dartmouth?

“The robe is hard to move in. Keep in mind, I’ve worn shorts almost every day for the last 35 years.

“I’m not a person who gives a lot of speeches like this. Maybe the worst… but an important speech… was when I started out on the Swiss national team. I was 17 years old, and I was so nervous that I couldn’t even say more than four words: ‘Happy… to… be… here.’

“Well, here we are, 25 years later. I still feel a little nervous, but I’ve got a lot more than four words to say to you. Starting with: I’m happy to be here! Happy to be with you, here on the Green.

“I’m even more impressed, because I left school at the age of 16 to play tennis full-time.

“So I never went to college… but I did graduate recently.

“I graduated tennis.

“No, in truth, I’m loving the life of a tennis graduate. I graduated tennis in 2022, and you are graduating college in 2024. So I have a head start in answering the question of what’s next.

“‘Effortless’… is a myth.

“I mean it.

“I say that as someone who has heard that word a lot. ‘Effortless’.

“People would say my play was effortless. Most of the time, they meant it as a compliment… But it used to frustrate me when they would say: ‘He barely broke a sweat!’

“Or ‘Is he even trying?’

“The truth is, I had to work very hard… to make it look easy.

“I spent years whining… swearing… throwing my racket… before I learnt to keep my cool.

“The wakeup call came early in my career, when an opponent at the Italian Open publicly questioned my mental discipline. He said: ‘Roger will be the favourite for the first two hours, and then I’ll be the favourite after that.’

“I was puzzled at first. But eventually, I realised what he was trying to say. Everybody can play well the first two hours. You’re fit, you’re fast, you’re clear… and after two hours, your legs get wobbly, your mind starts wandering, and your discipline starts to fade.

“It made me understand… I have so much work ahead of me, and I’m ready to go on this journey now. I get it.

“So, you know, I tried not to lose.

“But I did lose… sometimes big. For me, one of the biggest was the finals at Wimbledon in 2008. Me vs. Nadal. Some call it the greatest match of all time. Okay, all respect to Rafa, but I think it would have been way way better if I had won…

“Losing at Wimbledon was a big deal… because winning Wimbledon is everything.

“In tennis, perfection is impossible… In the 1,526 singles matches I played in my career, I won almost 80% of those matches… Now, I have a question for all of you… what percentage of the points do you think I won in those matches?

“Only 54%.

“In other words, even top-ranked tennis players win barely more than half of the points they play.”

SL needs a move forward story

Roger Federer’s speech at the University of Dartmouth is a must-watch for everyone. It’s not just a source of inspiration; it’s a masterclass in humility. 

Imagine a man who has conquered the world of tennis, winning numerous Grand Slams and triumphing in 80% of the 1,526 singles he played, humbly stating that he “graduated from tennis” only upon his retirement in 2022. 

In a world where education is often mistaken for intelligence, fame for brilliance, wealth for superiority, and bloodline for entitlement, Federer’s words are a powerful reminder of what it truly means to be a legend. His humility, despite towering achievements, teaches us that greatness is not just about victories but about the grace with which we handle them.

There is learning from Federer’s speech. You need to move forward. Moving forward can not be done effortlessly. As he correctly points out, effortlessness is a myth. Every champion is born out of hard work, commitment, and a lot of sweat. It applies to a person, a family, a village, a city, and a country. 

It’s important to move forward. Especially Sri Lanka needs to move forward. Like any other country, Sri Lanka is imperfect. Having been born to a generation battled with terrorism, rebellions, chaos, recessions, corruption, nepotism, inequality, racism, threats, and harassment, the 65,000 square kilometre island – still it’s the best island in the world of its size. 

Sri Lanka needs to have a move forward story which every Sri Lankan can be part of. A story every Sri Lankan can embrace. Sri Lanka’s perceived strengths are its geolocation and biodiversity. But the real strength is its 22 million people, irrespective of which corner of the world that they are living in. The power lies in diversity. 

With Asia rising, Sri Lanka should be part of Asia’s move forward story. To move forward, it requires humility, self-confessions, and breaking the status quo. To move forward, it requires being open to learning and embracing the world. 

In Sri Lanka, my friends in the corporate C-suite, entrepreneurs, and family business owners increasingly look to be part of the global supply chain. There is urgency, by necessity, even if it’s not the choice. Sri Lanka needs to move inch by inch, everyday – just like Al Pacino’s speech from ‘Any Given Sunday’. 

I quote: “You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. I mean that’s… part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small – I mean one half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.” 

Sri Lanka should not miss inches which are everywhere in a connected world. Instead of waiting for the world to come, Sri Lanka should move forward to meet the world. 

The greater within the lesser

In a deeper Zoom conversation with Roberto Alvarez from Brazil, we ended the conversation with a question from him: “With all that’s going on in the world, are you positive, negative, or in the middle?” I said I was positive. He echoed the same view. 

I cannot find in any literature that the world was free from terrorism, rebellions, chaos, recessions, corruption, nepotism, inequality, racism, threats, and harassment. Perhaps this is the problem with humankind and the human mind. Despite that, the world always moves forward. There are millions of things we can agree on that the world is broken. But in the same way, there are millions of things that we can agree on that the world is a much better place. 

Friends like Roberto founded and invested in multiple startups including space tech and are moving the world forward. The more you learn from others, the more your achievements look insignificant. The more you listen to others, there is always a student in you. 

Here’s to the ones who are not afraid to speak up. To the ones who want to shape the world. To the ones who can rise above adversity. To the ones who could see beyond religion, caste, creed, gender, ethnicity, age, and geography. To the ones who can celebrate failures. To the ones who can see their imperfections. To the ones who want to change themselves before changing others. To the ones who can say ‘us’ instead of ‘I’. To the ones who can lift others. This story is for you.

(The Morning)

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