The Apple Ethos is Bigger Than Apple Itself

The idea of Apple as a “cult” or “religion” is often expressed somewhat derisively, but there’s no doubt that for many, many people the company represents something beyond the products it produces, particularly when referring to Steve Jobs’s Apple in particular. When Jobs died, I wrote about how the grieving wasn’t exclusively about the loss of a man, but of an ethos, a way of thinking and working. Here’s John Gruber explaining that ethos back when Jobs resigned in 2011, as his illness was overtaking him:

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like. The same thought, care, and painstaking attention to detail that Steve Jobs brought to questions like “How should a computer work?”, “How should a phone work?”, “How should we buy music and apps in the digital age?” he also brought to the most important question: “How should a company that creates such things function?”

And then Gruber ends with the refrain that was often heard during the transition from the Jobs era to that of Tim Cook:

Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Jobs himself probably knew this, that the ethos of Apple was the product, the one that would birth all others to come. And that’s why he established Apple University in 2008, an institution internal to Apple that would formalize the propagation of the company culture long after he’d be there to do it himself. Brian X. Chen at the New York Times got some rare glimpses into Apple University, which, like the rest of Apple, is kept under tight wraps.

Read the article if you’re curious about things like the individual classes, but this quote from analyst Ben Bajarin is a good idea of what the motivation behind it is:

When you do the case studies on Apple decades from now, the one thing that will keep coming out is this unique culture where people there believe they’re making the best products that change people’s lives. That’s all cultural stuff they’re trying to ingrain. That becomes very difficult the bigger you get.

And from Apple folks Chen spoke to:

[Employees] described a program that is an especially vivid reflection of Apple and the image it presents to the world. Like an Apple product, it is meticulously planned, with polished presentations and a gleaming veneer that masks a great deal of effort.

Most folks will hear about Apple University and the attempts to codify the Jobs ethos and presume this applies more or less exclusively to the goings-on in Cupertino. But I can tell you from my own experience as a blue-shirted retail drone that, university or no university, the culture and values of Jobs and the company are instilled across the corporation’s many manifestations.

Matthew Panzarino understood this when he wrote his own response to Jobs’s resignation:

This philosophy has been instilled in Apple employees from the Retail Stores to the executive staff. No other major technology company employs staff as convinced that they are producing some of the best products in the world. This is a result of Jobs’ ability to lead by example, infusing the corporate culture with that same passion and pride of a creator.

To the retail employees, the store was (and I assume is) as much an iconic product as any iThing, where even those of us at the bottom of the ladder felt a little drunk on the effects of Reality Distortion Field and googly-eyed from the glow of the logo. There’s a reason why a customer’s experience with employees at Apple Stores is so vastly different from anything else in the mall, and most anywhere else for that matter.

It seems to me, given that the Apple ethos is being instilled in a formalized way within the company, that it’s kind of a shame that it isn’t done outside the company as well. Not by Apple itself, of course, as that would be against its interests as a company; why teach competitors how to do what you do?

But go back to the retail example. Now that I know how things were done within Apple Retail, imperfect as it was, I’m now ruined for all retail experiences outside the metallic box of the Apple Store. From high to low-end, I leave most retail experiences sorely disappointed, shaking my head and thinking about how whatever I just went through would never fly at Apple. There would have been an extra mile not traveled, a question unasked, a consideration not made.

This is just one example. Imagine if more aspects of life – be they commercial, governmental, artistic…anything – were to take more of an intentional queue from the way Apple works, or at least strives to work. Maybe there’s something funny about the idea of the “Cult of Apple” and the messiah Steve Jobs (peace be upon him). But if someone truly qualified offered a course or a certification in this ethos, I’d sign up right quick.

Apple may have been Steve Jobs’s greatest product, but it’s the ethos that fuels it is an even better one. I certainly wouldn’t want a world of short-fused, megalomaniacal Steve Jobses, but I would like a culture that aspires more intentionally to the fractal Gruber described: “Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth.” That’s a church I could believe in.

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