In Praise of Tweakers: Why Gladwell Is Wrong About Jobs

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.

Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

9 thoughts on “In Praise of Tweakers: Why Gladwell Is Wrong About Jobs”

  1. Nice post. I absolutely agree. By Gladwell’s definition, there could be no true visionaries as every great invention builds on the accomplishments of previous inventions. There are no true clean slates as you say.

    However, visionaries aren’t just great inventors. They can simply be people who have the ability see new capabilities in products or new technologies and understand both the impact of these technologies and future direction of industries before others. If nothing else, this was Job’s greatest strength. Sometimes this means being first to ditch the floppy disk or first to openly acknowledge that Flash has no future in mobile computing.

  2. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and inventors don’t pluck ideas out of nowhere. The method of progress is evolution, and invention occurs in a continuum. As Newton famously put it, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

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