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Woz on Creativity: Work Alone (brainpickings.org)
249 points by bootload on Feb 24, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

This brought to mind Hemingway's Nobel acceptance:

"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him."

I could not upvote this more, but maybe it's just because I'm going through an intense "work hard in solitude" period.

Here's a quote I ran across: http://musicthoughts.com/t/415 "The best chance you have, if you want to rise, is to give yourself up to loneliness, fear nothing, and work hard."

Similar point is made in this article oriented toward military officers:


TLDR: Leadership requires depth of understanding, intospection, and capacity for creativity, all of which require solitude to cultivate.

This piece blew me away - thank you for posting it! I wonder if many people find the main message difficult to relate to. I certainly would have just 2 years ago while in a corporate world.

Wow, thank you 100 times for linking to this. The inspiration I can gather from this piece is life changing for me. Talk about an eye opener...

big thanks for posting this. one of the more important solitude texts I've ever read.

If you're reading Hacker News but haven't read iWoz, or at least had it on your reading list for a long time and plan to get to it soon, then you're reading the wrong website. You simply can't get any more "been there, done that" than Woz when it comes to technology and startups. Steve's life is an open book, and you won't find any bullet points of indispensable wisdom in it, but you'll come away with a lifetime of experiences to draw on for your own decision making, and hopefully a little bit better worldview. I thought I knew all there was to know about the Apple story, but knowing a list of facts isn't like experiencing things from the point of view who made it possible. Would that the world had more Steve Wozniaks in it.

Awesome excerpt on Woz from Jessica Livington's book:


I'm currently reading Founders at Work. Highly recommend it to anyone here!

I haven't read that book but it seems, from what I have read online, that it contains a lot of bragging from Woz, and not enough details about the challenges he faced in the early days. Plus the title itself is misleading. Wozniak had no direct link to the Apple in iPod/iPhone/iPad era.

Once technology issue is resolved engineer should humbly deny his contribution and let others take or share the credit??

On a serious note I have seen couple of interviews but to me Woz never appeared to be bragging. He simply likes explaining technology.

Serious Creativity" is definitely something that cannot be done in a group work. The process that allows to generate new ideas, new ways to do something, is basically the same one for each of us:

1) The starting point is always the observation of anomalies in an existing system or pattern. 2) You reason on those anomalies in your head, alone. 3) You come up with a possible response, alone. 4) You visualize in your head how this response would actually works. This should be practiced until you see it working smoothly from beginning to end. You do this alone. 5) Finally you set to work in order to bring this response into our physical world. Either alone or in a group-work

(The above needs some further explanation but this will bring me out of track now. If anyone wants me to elaborate more on those 5 points I will do it opening a new thread.)

Now, doesn't this process sounds familiar ? Mr Paul Graham & co. have set up YC on those 5 points. In his article "How to apply to YC" he writes:"...what we look for in ideas is not the type of idea but the level of insight you have about it...". So if steps 1 to 4 are well executed, step 5 would be to apply to YC (or any other start up incubator that has the same framework process for selection.)

On similar lines.. there is a new book:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/about-the-book/

I feel this quote is unfair taken out of context of the rest of the book. iWoz was an interesting read. What surprised me about it is I came away feeling like Woz feels like a victim in many ways and he's got a skewed outlook on the world. When you feel that perspective from the book, this quote takes on a different meaning. At least it did to me. It feels more arrogant and self serving. I got the feeling that Woz thinks the world in general doesn't appreciate him, and so he used this book (and this quote) to try and force the idea that he is a true genius. Which is sad, because, well, he is a true genius.

For what it's worth I'm finding it hard to put my reaction to iWoz in words. I recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it. I'm pretty sure you will also come away with an interesting new perspective on the person that Steve is.

I didn't get the feeling that Woz felt he was a victim in iWoz. I get the feeling that Woz is keenly aware of being different, and that feeling pervades everything, from his early life to his Homebrew experience to the founding of Apple to his 3 divorces to his life since Apple. But then, as someone who's felt different most of my life and keenly wishes it were not so, I can empathize with that. It's nice to have some role models out there who feel that they've never quite meshed with everyone else and yet have managed to make the most of it.

For what it's worth I'm finding it hard to put my reaction to iWoz in words.

Try looking for specific moments in the book that embody what you feel, and examine at how those specific moments—they'll usually be sentences—are constructed and what they're trying to express. This won't automatically solve the problem of putting your reaction into words, but it should help.

(. . . says the English grad student who has heard similar comments from many, many students.)

If you've read the iWoz, you will see Steve Jobs was jerk from the beginning.

I was convinced already after reading Founders at Work and how Jobs screwed him out of money right from the start.

Woz made himself a victim in many ways. I think particularly of the anecdote in _iWoz_ about Woz and the hedge fund guy - there was no reason Woz gave him millions in shares or whatever, there was no contract, and Woz clearly knew all this, but he did it anyway just to preserve his self-image as a naive innocent tech wunderkind.

In my experience this is correct. Work alone. It forces you to know what you're doing, and every part of this. So you're a deeper understanding.

Plus, there's nobody to tell you what to do (in all kind of meanings, eg, "maybe if you did xx that would be better!"). So you find your own solution.

On top of that, you'll sometimes reach walls that you have to destroy, again, on your own.

Basically, on your own, you gain more experience. It doesn't mean you shouldn't share it back of course. But you need to get some stuff done from A to Z if you want to be able to think by yourself (aka innovate, etc.)

I've been spending a lot of time recently trying to plan the work we need to do in the next few weeks to deliver or product to market, planning, meeting, discussing, etc. It was looking like there's no way to finish all the work we have to do.

Today, I made a point to avoid email and discussions with coworkers and just crank through as many JIRA tickets as possible. I was shocked how much I accomplished.

Wasn't necessarily the most creative work, but still seems related to what Woz is saying.

This reminds me of #18 on Hugh MaCleod's "how to be creative" -- Avoid the Water­coo­ler Gang.


Personally I think there is a large amount of value in wrestling with an idea until you are completely stuck on it and then talking to another engineer about it for a couple of minutes. Maybe I'm just an external processor, but some of the most creative and interesting things I have come up with have been the result of talking through a problem I've encountered with someone else.

Perhaps you just need a rubber duck? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging

Joking aside, I absolutely agree with you. I enjoy working with other smart people I can bounce ideas off of.

Relevant TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/steven_johnson_where_good_i... Basic idea is that open-ended collaboration > working alone. Which doesn't so much conflict with the idea that working alone > working on a "committee" or "team", in my opinion.

I understand the point about needing time alone to think things over. However I worry that many will use this as an excuse to stay locked up in their office making "The next big thing" without consulting or talking to potential customers/users. It's important to keep in mind that Woz would not have started Apple if Steve had not been pushing him to do it and gone out and done the legwork. If you read Jessica's book Woz said that he would have been perfectly happy working at HP his dream was to work at HP not to build Apple.

If you want to be creative, be smart and well-informed. Being alone is primarily important for avoiding interruptions which destroy your train of thought. Being creative requires combining ideas: well, you can't combine them if you have never heard of them. So learn a lot! And learn good facts and proper scientific (ie disprovable) theories, not stupid, useless opinions and religious/political beliefs invented by overblown authorities. Learn everything and believe nothing. Then go create.

Designer Philippe Starck apparently never reads magazines or watches TV.

Finding time to be truly alone to work is becoming increasingly difficult. Silence is a luxury few get these days.

I find it's great to start ideas alone and work with others to see them completed. I suppose that's pretty much what Woz did with the Apple I and II.

>I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee

The Internet would seem to be an obvious counter-example to this claim.

"The Internet" ? What definition of Internet allows it to be considered a single revolutionary entity that was invented, and by a committee no less.


True. However, the Internet as we know it today would not exist is committees controlled it. OSI 7 Layer vs TCP/IP Model. W3C Recommendations. There are many [significantly-]ignored committee creations.

AFAIK ARPANET started as a project to implement existing ideas about networking.

It was the first packet-switching network, and thus an invention. It also directly grew into the Internet (the original ARPANET was the first network on the Internet), hence my response. And, it was designed by committee. So as far as my original comment goes, I still think the Internet is a pretty good counter-example to Woz's claim.

Packet-switching was the invention; ARPANET the implementation. Implementations by committees/teams/groups are commonplace. For you to call it a good counter-example, you need to show that packet-switching was invented by a committee.

I don't think separating the two is reasonable. Was the invention of the internal combustion engine separate from its first construction? Was the invention of the atom bomb separate from the construction and testing of The Gadget?

Conception and implementation are, in my mind, both necessary for invention.

You can define things however you want but you're talking about something very different to what Woz is talking about.

The internet was novel, but not revolutionary until the WWW came along. The browser and hypertext brought the revolution of universally-available content.

And every Lennon/McCartney song.

It's like any evolutionary process. You need a dynamic period when ideas are smashed together. But you need a lot more time when ideas are given the opportunity to independently arise. The diversity in the ideas going into the fusion/collaborative stage will determine the fitness of the output.

Spot on. However, I cant think of a single achievement which was not created from unfiltered group brainstorming. Then again, I do things differently.

My tip of the day: work hard in solitude - stop reading Hacker News :)

Woz is famous because he worked with a team.

Alone Woz couldn't have had the sense to sell blue boxes, the gumption to complete Breakout in a crunch, or build a computer that worked with a color TV, or design the elegant Apple II. He would have stayed at HP and been a great mid-level manager. He now lives the life he wants, without having to worry about about money, all because he worked with a team.

Creativity and success are two different things. Without a team Woz would not have been as successful as he is today but he would still have been an insanely creative mid-level manager at HP.

I read somewhere saying Woz is Asperger, is it true? just curious

He's right. Best stuff I've ever done involved zero noise and distraction. But really, I'm just antisocial.

Except the work Steve Wozniak is most remembered for was done with Steve Jobs, so he did in fact work in a team. I think the quote is just a rant against the pains of pushing innovation in corporate environments, that any engineer could write just as well in a moment of frustration - anyone in engineering should recognize a familiar note as he starts talking about committees and marketing people.

Every engineer already goes through a lot of struggle designing the initial prototype of the thing being designed, analyses the constraints involved, tries out different alternatives attempting to find the sweet spot that will satisfy them all etc. Then, exhausted and in love with the product of his effort, he shows it to people at some company or institution and they all have something to say or add to something the engineer perceives as already perfect or almost perfect, some might have valuable criticism, but some might just have no idea about the constraints involved because they didn't put in that much time into analysis, some just want to have their share in the potential success, some have to think about how to actually sell it etc. That surely is overwhelming, but it is part of the engineers work and I don't think "Work alone" is advice of much value. You simply have to accept this is just as an important part of your work as the design itself - I think most people never do. Then, you can starting learning how to best deal with it. Also, find a team or/and organization that you actually like, or at least can tolerate.

"Except the work Steve Wozniak is most remembered for was done with Steve Jobs"

It was actually a common misconception. Nearly all the engineering work for Apple 1,2 was done by Woz alone (as per his book). And Apple 1 was completely done in isolation in his apartment. His book is such an awesome read.

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