Efficient Engineering
Steve Wozniak
Steve Wozniak speaks at the 2017 MD&M show at the Javits Center in New York City.

Steve Wozniak Echoes Advice of Other Disrupters and Leaders

The prankster genius says you have to have fun with discipline and proves it, as he talks about everything from using a fake ID to prank-calling the pope.

Engineering is known for being a good, well-paid, in-demand job. However, these aspects may not have anything to do with happiness or a healthy work/life balance—or a healthy life at all. Defining what you want and who you want to be and sticking to that is important for happiness. It also could play a larger role in the world than you might think, given the fact that these points resonate across the stories of many successful and inspired individuals. This occurred to me recently when I had the opportunity to hear Apple legend Steve Wozniak speak at the 2017 MD&M show at New York City’s Javits Center. He emphasized the following points, which echoed some other people I’ve heard speak:  

1. Don’t worry about money

Believe it or not, I have heard “Don’t worry about money,” said a lot in start-ups, and by people like Elon Musk and Wozniak. Why is this repeated when revenue and cash flow are known to be so essential to business? For start-ups, this is to get inventors focused on value rather than money. In addition, I have been told multiple times, “If you focus on building value, the money will follow.”

“If you are passionate about the product, you may hold onto it when there is a better solution available,” says CEO of Strongarm Technologies, Sean Petterson. “However, it’s not even about the solution. It’s about knowing the problem inside and out to understand what value is needed, not how much revenue a solution will produce. You need to focus on the problem, not the product.”

Worrying about money was one thing Musk didn’t want to stand in his way. Shortly after college, he has told of how he tried living on less than $1 a day in terms of his food budget. He said with some pasta and rice, he realized how inexpensively he could live. Once he knew how much he needed to survive, he could use the rest as capital to achieve whatever he wanted.

Similarly, Wozniak said to not worry about money. Even as a kid, he just wanted to tinker and build weird things for his own enjoyment. I feel this should be prefaced with the fact that he was a genius and could have walked into any tech company and be given a job without a resume or college education. But the message was similar: just build things and have fun. For Wozniak, building value equated to creating things that gave him enjoyment, and eventually he made a lot of money.

Maksym Kozlenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Shown is the Blue Box at Sydney, Australia’s Powerhouse Museum. Because a local college library didn’t lock its doors on the weekend, Wozniak was able to sneak in and find a book that presented all the frequencies that represented numbers for an analog phone.

2. Have Fun

Wozniak said that most of his early success was him just having fun. Only when he showed his weird new inventions to Steve Jobs did the question arise: How can we make money off of this? This started to change things. Wozniak said he figured out what he wanted in life at a young age and stayed loyal to that. In contrast, he said that Jobs’ focus on making money and elevating his status led him to do things that Wozniak felt no human being should do to another human being.

It’s interesting how such different things make people “tick.” Wozniak knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t status or money. Yet he was, and still is, a tinkering prankster. Even Wozniak’s Blue Box, which was able to make free calls anywhere in the world, was mainly developed just to see if he could do it. Once he found the frequency used by an analog phone to represent numbers, Wozniak decided to test his invention.

After calling the pope and claiming to be a representative of then-President Nixon, he was told that the pope was sleeping and to try back later. He did, but still was asked the nature of the call--to which Wozniak replied that it was no big deal and he just wanted to make a confession. Back in the pre-9/11 days, Wozniak also used a fake ID over a five-year period when he flew to places. The ID said he was a laser safety inspector. In the photo, he was wearing an eye patch. This was some of what Wozniak was talking about when he said that people need to have fun with their discipline.

Today, Wozniak is excited to see the maker movement and has been spotted walking around the Maker Faire. He confessed to having a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and a host of other maker toys. He hopes this new movement will inspire the next generation of pranksters…or engineers. While much of what Wozniak talked about was having fun, it was really about doing the right thing for the right reasons. You could tell he knew what he wanted and what his ethics were at a young age. This is increasingly important as our world becomes more of a global economy.

3. Mind Your Ethics

We live in an ever-growing economy. One hundred years ago, if someone died of a disease, it might not even reach the newspaper. Today, that same person could start a pandemic that might be the top searched keyword on the internet. As we live in this continually expanding world, ethics becomes increasingly important. For example, many people might not want to support child or slave labor, but the companies where they shop might.

For engineers, it is important to realize that money might not be the most important thing in the world. Like Musk, you don’t need much to exist. So put everything else toward what you think is important—and that might not be happiness and having fun. In a Ted Talk with Simon Anholt, he explains how he designed the Good Country Index, which measures what each country contributes to the common good of humanity.

According to Anholt, happiness is still related to selfishness and doesn’t make the world a better place. Globalization has brought us unprecedented accomplishments. But when it comes to the treatment of each other or the Earth, we seem to be lagging. We ‘re mostly concerned about our own comfort or whether we are doing better than our neighbors—whether it’s the house or the country next door.

In business, competition is good. But you don’t want to use a component for your product if the supplier is using slave labor in its operation. Interestingly, countries like Kenya are ranked higher on the Good Country Index than some richer countries. This shows that you don’t need money to work globally. And while many of the rich nations placed toward the top of the index, not all of them did. Ireland was first, while the U.S. was 20.

Overall, the message is this: If we view ourselves as an island or focus on whether we are doing better than everyone else, we will not be able to overcome our current problems. Humanity will lose. What got us here (competition) will not get us there (a better future).

Thinking globally and ethically is hard—especially when we are facing challenges on a scale that some of us can’t even contemplate. How do we move on from here? If I knew, I’d run for office. In the meantime, I’m going to try to not worry about money, think about my impact on others and the planet,  and have fun with my discipline.

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