In Praise of Tweakers: Why Gladwell Is Wrong About Jobs

on November 10, 2011

If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, 1676

Portrait of Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

In a New Yorker essay on  the career of Steve Jobs,  Malcolm Gladwell dismisses the idea the Jobs was a visionary. Instead, Gladwell writes, drawing heavily on Walter Isaacson’s biography, “he was much more of a tweaker.”

In defining Jobs’s career, Gladwell is mostly right, though I don’t think “tweaker” is an adequate word. Jobs’s genius was to to take ideas he found floating around and make them much, much better.

Where Gladwell is wrong is in his analysis of the inventive process. Those he calls visionaries, the person who “starts with a clean sheet of paper, and reimagines the world,” hardly ever come along. And those who do often end up forgotten, as in the case of of Gladwell’s prime example, Samuel Crompton, inventor of the spinning mule.

Consider Isaac Newton, a true scientific revolutionary but one who would have to be classed as a “tweaker” in Gladwell’s taxonomy. Newton did not suffer from false modesty; he carried on a decades-long feud with Leibniz over primacy in the development of the calculus. But he knew that he was building on progress in mathematics from Archimedes to his contemporary John Wallis and on the astronomical breakthroughs of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler. Similarly, Einstein’s relatively revolution is impossible to imagine without the physics of James Clerk Maxwell and Hendrik Lorentz or the mathematics of Henri Poincaré and Hermann Minkowski.

Or the computer itself. The computer,  which truly has no inventor, was born when several streams of invention coalesced in the cauldron of World War II: A long history of tinkering with mechanical calculating devices from Pascal to Babbage; the theoretical mathematics of Alan Turing and John von Neumann; the development of electronics to replace mechanical devices; the engineering genius of John Antanasoff, J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchly, and others; and a flood of government funding.

The fundamental problem with  Gladwell’s approach is that there are no clean sheets of paper, and perhaps no visionaries as Gladwell defines them. Everyone inherits the world as it is. The geniuses are the ones who can take that and turn it into something much better.