Best Advice: Lessons From My Dad and Steve Jobs

Since we launched the Influencers platform on LinkedIn several months ago, I’ve had the chance to share a few different posts with some great advice I’ve received over the years. When our editors mentioned they were running a special edition of Influencer posts focused on the question “What is the best advice you’ve ever received?” I thought it would be a good opportunity to digest some of those posts and add some additional advice I’ve found to be particularly valuable.

You can do anything you set your mind to — My dad

As a child, I can’t recall a day that went by without my dad telling me I could do anything I set my mind to. He said it so often, I stopped hearing it. Along with lines like “eat your vegetables,” I just assumed it was one of those bromides that parents repeated endlessly to their kids. It wasn’t until decades later that I fully appreciated the importance of those words and the impact they had on me.

Today, the question I’m asked most often by students and interns is how best to achieve their career goals. As simple as it sounds, the short version of my response is that you have to know what it is you ultimately want to accomplish (optimizing for both passion and skill, and not one at the exclusion of the other). As soon as you do, you’ll begin manifesting it in both explicit and implicit ways.

Everything that can be converted from an atom to a bit, will be — Nicholas Negroponte

In the Fall of 1994, I read “Being Digital” by Nicolas Negroponte. In the opening chapter Negroponte posited that by virtue of the ensuing digital revolution, everything that could be converted from an atom to a bit would be. Having just started as an analyst in the Corporate Development group at Warner Bros, it didn’t take much to realize this coming transition would have material implications on the studio and the entertainment industry in general. Thus began my nearly two-decades-long career in digital media.

Do you want to push paper around or do you want to build products that change people’s lives? — Dan Rosensweig

Roughly a year after I started on the Corp Dev team at Yahoo in 1994, Dan Rosensweig joined as Yahoo’s new COO. He tried recruiting me to an operating role on his team literally every time I saw him over the first year of his tenure, but I would always decline. Then, almost a year to the day he started, Dan said, “Jeff, you’ve always told me that your lifelong ambition is ultimately to reform the education system in the U.S. Let me ask you something: Do you think you are going to be better prepared to make that a reality by pushing paper around, working on strategy, and doing deals; or by moving in to operations and building teams, inspiring people, and developing great products that change people’s lives?” Suffice it to say, I accepted on the spot and haven’t looked back since.

We are the stories that we tell — Deepak Chopra

Several years ago, I asked Deepak how massively scaling consumer web platforms could best contribute in a world that felt increasingly besieged by secular challenges. His response was that ultimately we are the stories that we tell; that the importance of storytelling was as old as humanity itself, dating back to the time of cave drawings. He went on to explain that if society was exclusively focused on rehashing the problems of the world, e.g. rising unemployment, global warming, threat of terrorism, etc, it would create anxiety, stress, and a planet steeped in self-fulfilling negative energy. However, if we came together and focused on not only identifying the problems, but developing the solutions and shining a light on those success stories, we could change the dialog and manifest more positive change. That discussion forever changed my appreciation for the power of narrative, regardless of the size of the audience.

If you could only do one thing, what would it be? — Steve Jobs

Shortly after Jerry Yang became the CEO of Yahoo, he invited Steve Jobs to address the company’s leadership. Among many insightful things that Steve shared that day, the one that continues to have the most profound influence on me was his discussion regarding prioritization. Jobs said that after he returned to Apple in 1994, he recognized there were far too many products and SKUs in development so he asked his team one simple question: If you could only do one thing, what would it be? He said that many of the answers rationalized the need to do more than one thing, or sought to substantiate bundling one priority with another. However, all he wanted to know was what “the one thing” was. As he explained it, if they got that one thing right, they could then move on the next thing, and the next thing after that, and so on. Turned out the answer to his question was the reinvention of the iMac. After that, it was the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Interestingly enough, years later I heard Jobs speak at All Things D and he explained that the company had actually been working on the iPad before the iPhone, as he had long written off pursuit of the phone as being prohibitively challenging given the carrier landscape. However, once a window of opportunity opened up to successfully bring a phone to market, he hit the pause button on the tablet, and only returned to it once Apple got the iPhone right. Pretty mind blowing to think that a company as large and successful as Apple, and someone as prodigiously talented as Steve Jobs, would temporarily shelve something as important as the iPad for the sake of focus, but that’s exactly what he did.

Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness, compassion without wisdom is folly — Fred Kofman

After having worked at Yahoo for seven years and making the decision to leave, I started to think a lot about what I wanted to do next. I’ve long been interested in education reform, and specifically the democratization of knowledge, which was one of the primary dynamics that drew me to the consumer web, digital media and search specifically. Consistent with this passion, I drafted a personal vision statement: To expand the world’s collective wisdom.

A few weeks after developing that vision, I found myself at dinner one night with my friend Fred Kofman, founder of Axialent, author of “Conscious Business”, and one of the most enlightened people I’ve met throughout my career. After sharing my objective with him, he said, “That’s very powerful, but bear in mind, wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness, and compassion without wisdom is folly.” The line stopped me cold in my tracks. After some additional back and forth, I said I was amending my initial vision to read “To expand the world’s collective wisdom and compassion” and that objective has influenced every aspect of my work ever since.

Five steps to happiness — Ray Chambers

After a legendary career on Wall Street where he was widely acknowledged as having developed the modern day leveraged buyout (the acquisition of Gibson Greetings in 1982), Ray gave it all up in the late-eighties to pursue a life of philanthropic activity. Among other endeavors, he founded or led efforts such as the National Mentoring Partnership, the Points of Light Foundation, America’s Promise, The Millennium Promise Alliance, Malaria no More, and today is the special emissary to the United Nations to help eradicate deaths due to Malaria. As one of my mentors, I’ve learned a lot from Ray through the years, but the one piece of advice that I find myself coming back to most often are are his five steps to happiness:

Live in the moment

It’s better to be loving than to be right

Be a spectator to your own thoughts, especially when you become emotional

Be grateful for at least one thing every day

Help others every chance you get