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Nontrepeneur: Steve Wozniak

This essay is part of a series on nontrepeneurship.

Woz is an infamous examplar of the engineering archetype.

But beyond the typical tropes, I see a man who’s obssessed with quality, skeptical of cash, eager to help, and down to clown.

Lesson: Push vs. Pull

He said, “Well, you have to leave Hewlett-Packard.” It just wasn’t open. I went inside of myself and thought about it. “Who are you? What do you want out of life?” And I really wanted a job as an engineer forever at a great company (which was Hewlett-Packard). I wanted to design computers and show them off and make software. And I can do that on my own time. I don’t need a company to do it. So there was an ultimatum day—I had to decide by a certain day if I was willing to do this. I met Mike and Steve at Mike’s cabana at his house in Cupertino. Eventually we got around to it, and I said, “I’ve decided not to do it, here are my reasons.” Mike just said, “Okay.” Steve was a little more upset.

… And then friends would start calling me. That day my friend Allen Baum called me in the afternoon, and he said, “Look, you can start Apple and go into management and get rich, or you can start Apple and stay an engineer and get rich.” As soon as he said it was okay to do engineering, that really freed me up. My psychological block was really that I didn’t want to start a company. Because I was just afraid. In business and politics, I wasn’t going to be a real strong participant. I wasn’t going to tell other people how to do things. I wasn’t going to run things ever in my life. I was a non-political person and I was a very non-forceful person. It dated back to a lot of things that happened during the Vietnam War. But I just couldn’t run a company.

But then one person said I could be an engineer. That was all I needed to know, that “Okay, I’ll start this company and I’ll just be an engineer.” To this day, I’m still on the org chart, on the bottom of the org chart—never once been anything but an engineer who works.

Steve Wozniak

Unable to bear sharing equity, many makers get greedy and work outside their core-competencies. These folks summon misery; their workload increases and quality plummets.

Few people are capable of creating high-quality products that delight others. Many people can ask for money and run businesses. If you are somebody who enjoys building nifty junk, figure out how to convince others to pull you along.

If you are an aspiring nontrepeneur with great ideas that don’t get traction, feel free to email me at [email protected]. I probably won’t be able to help you with anything, but I’ll try my best to put you in touch with the right people. Makers of the world, unite!

Lesson: Snake-Oil vs. Pranks

Humor is closely related to the creativity and invention that we’re born with. It’s that spirit of thinking out something a little bit different — making up your own jokes.

Steve Wozniak

Woz plays pranks:

It takes a very peculiar type of person to accidentally start a successful business. Pranks demonstrate many common nontrepeneur traits:

Nontrepeneurs needn’t be “pranksters” per se, but many seem to make and play unorthodox games.

Lesson: Funds vs. Fun

From a distance, it appears that Woz starts companies to work on his latest passions with friends:

Passion projects are usually not profitable projects, and that’s okay.

Entrepeneurs take roads less-travelled in pursuit of power and riches. Nontrepeneurs sometimes take random roads for unknowable reasons.

Lesson: Numbers vs. Values

The hardest thing was though, after having a big success… see, I didn’t seek the success, I wasn’t like the entrepreneur who wants it. So the money to me didn’t really mean much. Pretty much I gave it all away to charities, to museums, to children’s groups, to everything I could. It almost was like an evil to me. That was because it wasn’t the motivation that I was after, and I wanted to remain the person that I would have been without Apple. So that’s why I went back and did the teaching. I would have done teaching, were there no Apple.

Steve Wozniak

I do not invest. I don’t do that stuff. I didn’t want to be near money, because it could corrupt your values.

Steve Wozniak

Video games transform me into an awful person. When I’m engaged in a good RPG, I don’t eat or sleep. All comms go offline. I become hostile to anybody that tries to engage with me. Anything unrelated to that game gets put on hold for a few weeks.

I’m unsure what a large windfall of cash would do to me. I can imagine myself frittering it away on worthless junk. I can imagine myself burying gold bars in treasure chests. I can imagine myself doing immeasurable harm. I can imagine myself becoming different degrees of happy, miserable, etc.

By definition, life-changing sums of money can change your life. People who can synthesize joy distrust such things.