Black Turtlenecks Are Not the Key to Success

turtleneckA boy asked an older rich man how he made his money.

The old guy fingered his sweater and said, “Well, son, it was 1934 and in the depth of the Great Depression. I was down to my last dime.

“I invested that dime in an apple. I spent the entire day polishing the apple and, at the end of the day, I sold the apple for 15 cents.

“The next morning, I invested those 15 cents in two apples. I spent the entire day polishing them and sold them for 30 cents. I continued this system for a month, by the end of which I’d accumulated a fortune of $1.59.”

“And that’s how you built an empire?” the boy asked.

“Heavens, no!” the man replied. “Then my wife’s father died and left us 10 million dollars.”

—Author unknown

Though it’s been some time since he passed, people still frequently refer to the brilliant and mercurial co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. An article in the Wall Street Journal (Bio As Bible: Managers Sing Steve Jobs’ Gospel, April 2, 2012) shortly after his death highlighted some CEOs who concluded that if they acted or dressed like Steve Jobs, they’d be successful. One had taken to dressing in black turtle-necks as Jobs famously did.

It’s good to strongly identify with those whom you’d like to emulate or learn from. However, correlation is not the same as causation. Black turtlenecks didn’t make Steve Jobs successful. Also, good results sometimes come from questionable practices or — as the story above tells us — luck.

I like to cook and occasionally try to re-create things I eat in restaurants. Sometimes I come very close. Sometimes I miss one or two critical ingredients that I couldn’t identify and the result is poor.

Berating people to do more or do better — a tactic that Jobs employed frequently — doesn’t always work. You have to be careful not to take things out of context. Having high expectations of the right people coupled with appreciation, a reward system, positive feedback and autonomy can produce brilliant results. But when combined with abuse, low pay and tight control, it rarely works well. A prisoner of war complies when the gun is pointed at his head but escapes as soon as the gate is open.

Have you ever seen the movie “Once Upon a Time in Mexico?” A ravishing Salma Hayek plays opposite Antonio Banderas. After seeing this, I used to joke with my kids that when I was young, I looked like Banderas. Neither my kids nor my wife bought it. I could dress in leather pants and dye my hair, but that wouldn’t get me a staring role with Salma Hayek; nor will the black turtle-neck make me as successful as Steve Jobs.

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