Steve Jobs - Motivation

Posted on February 7th, 2012

The word motivation comes from the Latin verb movere, meaning to move1. There are two types of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is based on the idea that if you do this, then you will get that. In other words, extrinsic motivation is based on an external reward that you will get once you will complete what you have to do. Intrinsic motivation is based on the idea that the activity itself is the reward. Thus, when you are intrinsically motivated, you do what you do because you enjoy it and not because someone told you to do it or because you will get a reward for it.

The psychology behind Apple’s products is based on intrinsic motivation, which means that when Apple designs the product, one of the main questions that employees at Apple ask is — will I enjoy using this product myself? When many other companies, design a product they focus on a different question — how much profit will this product bring us? An example of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is the story behind Microsoft Zune.

When iPod came out in October 2001, it revolutionized the way people listen to music. When Microsoft released Zune portable media player in November 2006, it was just another clunky mp3 player that achieved a marketshare of less than 5% two years later 2. Microsoft’s Zune was designed with profit in mind. Apple’s iPod was designed with usability and joy in mind. “The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter.

The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much” - Steve Jobs.

What motivated Steve Jobs to keep moving forward:

  • Autonomy - the desire to direct our own lives;
  • Mastery - the urge to get better and better at something that matters;
  • Purpose - the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves;
  • Awareness of death — a true understanding that your time is limited.

Steve Jobs was driven by his desire to create great products that he would enjoy using himself rather than products that would just bring profit to Apple. Every time a new product or software was released by Apple, it became better and better at helping people enjoy using digital technology. Jobs always knew that there is a big difference between using a product and enjoying using a product.

Another factor that drove Steve Jobs was his awareness of how little time he had left in this life. In his own words:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” - Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson gives an example about ancient Rome when a victorious general paraded through the streets, he was sometimes trailed by a servant whose job it was to repeat to him, Memento mori: Remember you will die. This was a reminder of mortality that helped the hero keep things in perspective, and not sink in pride2.

When Steve Jobs had to take a medical leave due to his health problems, Tim Cook gave an inspirational speech highlighting why Apple would continue to soar even with Jobs absent. After hearing this speech, Jobs became emotionally wounded and deeply depressed because it was not clear if Jobs would have to step down and become a chairman rather than CEO. However, instead of continuing to be depressed, Jobs became more motivated to get out of his bed, overcome the pain, and start taking his restorative long walks again.

“Living with a disease like this, and all the pain, constantly reminds you of your own mortality, and that can do strange things to your brain if you’re not careful. You don’t make plans more than a year out, and that’s bad. You need to force yourself to plan as if you will live for many years.” - Steve Jobs

One of the ways to recover for Steve Jobs was to start dreaming big even though life ahead was short. He began to design, and then repeatedly redesign, a boat that he wanted to build someday. When he got sick again in 2009, he almost canceled the project but then realized that it is important to keeping moving forward even if the odds of recovering were against him.

“I didn’t think I would be alive when it got done, but that made me so sad, and I decided that working on the design was fun to do, and maybe I have a shot at being alive when it’s done. If I stop work on the boat and then I make it alive for another two years, I would be really pissed. So I’ve kept going.” - Steve Jobs


  1. Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons 

  2. Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.  

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