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The one lesson you MUST learn from Steve Jobs and Elon Musk

Working as a Product Manager, one of the key class of decisions I have to is about prioritization. At product companies, we are always full of ideas on how we can improve the products we are building. Which means that we always have more features and improvements that we can work on than there is time. So, it becomes critical to pick the right ideas to work on at the right times.

Naturally, this is a core skill that I look for in any candidates I interview. And when the conversation comes around to this aspect, most candidates invariably bring up time and effort in order to decide which tasks to work on.

In the movie Jobs (I recommend the book over the movie any day of the week), there is a scene where Steve Jobs is being updated about the progress on the word processor that was being built at Apple. This was in the early 1980's.

During the presentation, he asks the team, "So, which of these tabs do I have to click on to see the list of fonts?"

The team members begin to shuffle their feet and throw glances at each other. Eventually, one of the project leads says, "It takes a lot of time and effort to introduce fonts and given how tight we are running against deadlines, we decided to not do the fonts. Frankly, I don't think that fonts are all that important."

Steve Jobs fires that project lead on the spot, and later says to the rest of the team, "He was the best engineer we had, but he didn't buy into our vision."

The results mattered to Steve Jobs a lot more than what it cost in terms of time and effort to get there.

I read the biographical account of Elon Musk a couple of weeks ago, and that is filled with similar stories. It is suicide to walk up to Elon Musk and tell him that something cannot be done without having alternative suggestions that will achieve the same end result. Justifications that involve reasoning in terms of time and effort are grounds for being fired.

But it isn't just at work that I face the prioritization scenarios. It happens every day and every week. Should I read one book a week irrespective of their sizes or should I read a fixed number of hours each week? Should I write a blog post every day or should I write for an hour every day (and stop mid-way if I don't finish it, or cut corners and make it shorter)? Should I write one chapter of my new book every week or should I write a thousand words a day?

Depending on my mindset, I tend to frame my goals and tasks in the above ways. There are cases when they both overlap and lead to the same end results. But often, that's not the case.

Committing to a result gives us no jail-free card. It gives us no excuses. We have to get it done no matter how long it takes and whatever else we have to sacrifice in order to get this done.

Committing to a time and effort gives us a jail-free card. We can still come out feeling happy that we put in an agreed upon amount of effort. But with this approach, we are taking the end result out of our hands.

This is what most product managers, most people do. This is how we make decisions. Because we want to feel like we are making progress, but not be forced to put in the hard work when it is needed. This helps us lead a guilt-free life.

But guilt-free doesn't lead to greatness.

What does is the passionate dedication to seeing through to the end result.

I take different approaches to different aspects. While it is one blog post in a sitting no matter how long it takes in terms of writing, it is one hour of reading a day irrespective of how big or how interesting the book is. And I'm currently regretting that approach as I'm so enthralled by reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, and can't keep myself from reading for more than an hour a day until I finish that book.

That's my lesson learnt this past week or two from two of the most successful people of our generation - Steve Jobs and Elon Musk - commit to end results and prioritise based on end results irrespective of the time and effort it takes.

There is no reward for half-arsed eighty percent of work done with twenty percent of time and effort. It is the end result in its totality that matters. That's the path to greatness.

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