Great Books Distilled: Books by History's Greatest Innovators, Founders, and Investors

The page is a reading list sharing the best books written by history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. You’ll find more than 100 good books to read, organized by category. This is a reading list for people who don’t have time for unimportant books — which should be everyone. I only list the best books I've read and recommend. So you can be sure that each will be worth your time.

Great Books by Category

These are the best books to read, listed by category. Along with a few collections of rare and hard-to-find speeches, lectures, talks, interviews, letters, and memos that are a great way to go deeper.

All Book Summaries

For the best books that I read, I go through the painstaking effort to put together and publish my personal notes including highlights, excerpts, and takeaways. You get the best 5% of the ideas in these books in a form that takes 20 minutes at most to read.

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Daniel Scrivner

Make Something Wonderful: Steve Jobs In His Own Words

Book Summary

This is my book summary of Make Something Wonderful by The Steve Jobs Archive. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.


Overview

Make Something Wonderful is a curated collection of Steve’s speeches, interviews and correspondence, Make Something Wonderful offers an unparalleled window into how one of the world’s most creative entrepreneurs approached his life and work. In these pages, Steve shares his perspective on his childhood, on launching and being pushed out of Apple, on his time with Pixar and NeXT, and on his ultimate return to the company that started it all.

Featuring an introduction by Laurene Powell Jobs and edited by Leslie Berlin, this beautiful handbook is designed to inspire readers to make their own “wonderful somethings” that move the world forward.


The Book in Three Sentences

A curated collection of Steve’s speeches, interviews and correspondence, Make Something Wonderful offers an unparalleled window into how one of the world’s most creative entrepreneurs approached his life and work. In these pages, Steve shares his perspective on his childhood, on launching and being pushed out of Apple, on his time with Pixar and NeXT, and on his ultimate return to the company that started it all. This beautiful handbook is designed to inspire readers to make their own “wonderful somethings” that move the world forward.


Favorite Quotes From the Book

“To Steve, Macintosh was everything technology should be. It was stream­lined and practical, simple and sophisticated, a tool for enhan­cing creativity as much as productivity.”

“We always tell people, “You work for Apple first and your boss second.” We feel pretty strongly about that.”

“Your aesthetics get better as you make mistakes.”

“I personally, man, I want to build things. I’m thirty. I’m not ready to be an industry pundit. I got three offers to be a professor during this summer, and I told all of the universities that I thought I would be an awful professor. What I’m best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them.”

“Though the outside world looks at success from a numer­ical point of view, my yardstick might be quite different than that. My yardstick may be how every computer that’s designed from here on out will have to be at least as good as a Macintosh.”

“You never achieve what you want without falling on your face a few times.”


Part I, 1976–1985

“A lot of people put a lot of love into these products.”

In 1976, when Steve and his friend Steve Wozniak (“Woz”) began assembling what would come to be known as the Apple I in the Jobs family’s garage, the word “computer” conjured images of hulking machines tended by professional programmers. A single company—IBM—dominated the industry. But Steve and Woz were part of a new generation of creative thinkers, engineers, and hobbyists trying to build small, cheap machines that they could program themselves.

When Apple launched, Steve was twenty-one, precocious but inexperienced and unpolished. At Apple’s first board meet­­ing, he put his bare feet on a conference room table, earning a quick rebuke from the board chair. The company’s breakthrough came with the introduction of the Apple II, a machine that could run right out of the box, with cassette storage and a built-in color screen. Within a year, Apple was one of the fastest-growing companies in America—and by the time Steve turned thirty, he was the public face of a Fortune 500 company.

Inside Apple, his ideas and passion were inspiring, but Steve’s management style was divisive. His responsibilities changed almost every year as he was assigned to and removed from various projects and teams. He began clashing with his handpicked CEO, John Sculley. In September 1985, the Apple board fired Steve.

Later, when he talked about these first years at Apple, Steve focused on one thing: Macintosh, the computer that he and a tight-knit team introduced to the world in 1984. To Steve, Macintosh was everything technology should be. It was stream­lined and practical, simple and sophisticated, a tool for enhan­cing creativity as much as productivity.

In another age, Steve believed, the people on the Macintosh team would have been writers, musicians, or artists. “The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter,” he said. He called their work a form of love and their product “a computer for the rest of us,” with a mouse as well as arrow keys, desktop icons instead of programming commands, and, at startup, instead of a blinking cursor: a smile.

Macintosh also represented the first time Steve led a team developing a product that he believed had changed the world. “It ushered in a revolution,” Steve recalled twenty-three years later, during the rollout of another world-changing innovation: the iPhone. “I remember the week before we launched the Mac, we all got together, and we said, ‘Every computer is going to work this way. You can’t argue about that anymore. You can argue about how long it will take, but you can’t argue about it anymore.’”


Part II, 1985–1996

“You never achieve what you want without falling on your face a few times.”

The years after Steve left Apple were among the toughest of his career—and the most formative.

Determined to build a new great computer company, he started NeXT with several members of the Macintosh team. “We’ll make a whole bunch of mistakes, but at least they’ll be new and creative ones,” he predicted.

Around the same time, Steve invested $10 million in a small company called Pixar. It was a tiny computer graphics operation, newly spun off from filmmaker George Lucas’s empire. The technical expertise at Pixar attracted Steve; its initial product was a high-end graphics computer that cost more than $100,000.

Both NeXT and Pixar quickly ran into trouble. The NeXT computer system, which debuted in 1988, was powerful and packed with the humanistic touches Steve loved. It was visually striking and intuitive to use, with high-quality audio and the complete works of Shakespeare built in. But it was also late to market and expensive—and it sold poorly. Within six years of NeXT’s launch, the entire founding team, other than Steve, had resigned.

Pixar, meanwhile, was eking out an existence selling computers and software and, later, animating commercials. The company was also making award-winning short films that charmed Steve. This use of technology in service of brilliant storytelling embodied one of his favorite things: work at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. The short films fired Steve’s enthusiasm and kept him writing check after check to Pixar, ultimately investing some $60 million.

But the films were, as Steve put it, “in the background,” not the company’s focus. He described Pixar’s early business strategy as “find a way to pay the bills,” and he later speculated that the only reason the company didn’t fall apart then was that the leadership team “would all get depressed … but not all of us at once.”

If at times in these years he seemed disappointed by the poss­ibilities of technology—“this stuff doesn’t change the world. It really doesn’t,” he told a reporter in an uncharac­teristic flash of pessimism—his world was also expanding beyond his work. He treasured his privacy, saying of his public persona, “I think of it as my well-known twin brother. It’s not me.”

Steve learned how to hone a company to its essence, even when it was painful. He shifted NeXT’s focus to selling software. The shift meant closing a factory and laying off more than two hundred of NeXT’s five hundred and thirty employees. Meanwhile, Pixar stripped away its advertising and hardware businesses and entered into an agreement with Disney, all to pursue what sometimes seemed an impossible dream: to make fully computer-animated feature films.

After nearly a decade of difficulty, the streamlined NeXT and Pixar both transformed into unlikely success stories. At the end of 1995, Pixar premiered Toy Story in the same month it held its initial public offering. A year later, Apple, in need of operating-system software, bought NeXT for $427 million. “If you really look closely,” Steve liked to say, “most overnight successes took a long time.


Part III, 1996–2011

“Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

The Apple that Steve returned to after its purchase of NeXT at the end of 1996 scarcely resembled the company he remembered. Apple had lost $800 million that year. Steve had so little trust in the board that he insisted all but two directors resign.

But he also found many employees whose talents and love for Apple struck him as “phenomenal.” He assured a doubtful NeXT colleague, “There’s something there worth saving.”

Steve remained driven by the same mission he articulated in his early years, to “put something back into the pool of human experience.” And in his years away—longer than his first time at the company—he had matured and learned how to lead.

As CEO of Apple and Pixar (he held both roles until Disney acquired Pixar in 2006), he saw his job as “number one, re­­­cruit; number two, set an overall direction; and number three, inspire and cajole and persuade.” He said, “You’re not grabbing the pencil out of the twenty-five-year-old’s hand to do it better than they are. If you’re smart, you’re hiring twenty-five-year-olds who are smarter than you.” He gave particular thought to his responsibility for the business aspects of a creative company. A “risk-taking creative environment on the product side,” he said, required a “fiscally conservative environment” on the business side. “Creative people are willing to take a leap in the air, but they need to know that the ground’s going to be there when they get back.”

At Apple, making sure the ground was still there meant streamlining, a skill Steve had mastered in the lean years at NeXT and Pixar. His second tenure at Apple was a study in focus. Soon after he returned, he slashed the company’s product offerings from seventeen to four. This upset some fans and led to thousands of job losses, but he was unwavering in his belief that it was necessary to save the company. “You’ve got to choose what you put your love into really carefully,” he said.

A stream of Apple breakthroughs—including iMac, OS X, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad—reflected that focused love, as did Pixar’s blockbuster and award-winning films from the same period: A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. Steve saw every product and film as “a way of expressing to the rest of our species our deep appre­ciation.” Apple technology offered tools to make something wonderful. And Pixar films, he believed, had the “rare opportunity to put stories into the culture,” stories that would speak to “our grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids.

Steve wanted to build a foundation for Pixar and Apple that would last beyond his lifetime. When Disney acquired Pixar, the deal included language protecting Pixar’s culture and independence. He was intimately involved in the design of campuses for both companies, with beautiful physical environments—an orchard, a café, a headquarters construc­ted of handmade bricks—that encouraged serendipitous encounters and reflected his reverence for craft.

Six Pixar films won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature during this third act of Steve’s life. And when he resigned from Apple, six weeks before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2011, his beloved company, with its sixty thousand employees, seasoned leadership team, and clear mission guiding its future, was the most valuable in the world.

“It is always a team of people, and the chemistry between that team of people, that makes great results,” Steve once said. Under his leadership, the teams at Apple and Pixar transformed four very different industries: computing, telecommunications, music, and film. The engine driving these trans­formations was a remarkably consistent set of values that Steve held dear: Life is short; don’t waste it. Tell the truth. Technology should enhance human creativity. Process matters. Beauty matters. Details matter. The world we know is a human creation—and we can push it forward.”


Interview with The New Yorker

Steve’s first appearance in a national publication came in a 1977 issue of The New Yorker. The magazine sent a reporter to the First Annual Personal Computing Expo, held in the New York Coliseum. Most people at the time had never seen a personal computer.

At a booth marked “Apple Computer, Inc.,” we paused to chat with the young man in charge, who introduced himself as Steven Jobs, the company’s vice-president for operations. Mr. Jobs was pleased at the turnout for the exhibition. “I wish we’d had these personal machines when I was growing up,” he said. “People have been hearing all sorts of things about computers during the past ten years through the media. Supposedly, computers have been controlling various aspects of their lives. Yet in spite of that, most adults have no idea of what a computer really is, of what it can or can’t do.”

“Now, for the first time, people can actually buy a com­puter for the price of a good stereo, interact with it, and find out all about it. It’s analogous to taking apart 1955 Chevys. Or consider the camera. “There are thousands of people across the country taking photography courses. They’ll never be professional photographers. They just want to understand what the photographic process is all about. Same with computers.”

“We started a little personal-computer manufacturing company in a garage in Los Altos in 1976. Now we’re the largest personal-computer company in the world. We make what we think of as the Rolls-Royce of personal computers. It’s a domesticated computer. People expect blinking lights, but what they find is that it looks like a portable typewriter, which, connected to a suitable readout screen, is able to dis­play in color.”

“There’s a feedback it gives to people, and the enthusiasm of the users is tremendous. We’re always asked what it can do, and it can do many things, but in my opinion the real thing it is doing right now is to teach people how to pro­gram the computer.”

Recalling Mr. Jobs’ wish that he had had such machines when he was growing up, we asked him if he would mind telling us his age.

“Twenty-two,” Mr. Jobs said.”

It's Time to Get Serious

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the helm at Apple. Apple had lost $800M in the previous year and his return was later described as "a study in focus." Soon after he returned, he slashed the company’s product offerings from 17 to 4. This upset some fans and led to thousands of job losses, but he was unwavering in his belief that it was necessary to save the company. “You’ve got to choose what you put your love into really carefully,” he said at the time.

Steve was not yet CEO when he sent a company-wide email laying out plans to take Apple back to its roots.

From: Steve Jobs
To: Apple employees
Subject: A More Entrepreneurial Apple
Date: August 12, 1997, 8:20 a.m.

Renewing Apple is a journey, and we have begun that journey during the past four weeks by taking some decisive first steps—a new Board of Directors, a new product strategy and product roadmap, a decision to really focus on two market segments (education and creative content), a new advertising agency, and a detente and working partnership with Microsoft. Last week we announced some of these steps at MacWorld, and so far our shareholders and the public seem to approve.

Today we are taking a few more steps which will begin to take Apple back to its roots as a more egalitarian, entrepreneurial company. They are:

  1. Stock Options: From now on, we will be using stock options as a primary form of “beyond-salary” compensation. Stock options are egalitarian (when anyone’s stock goes up $1 per share, everyone’s stock goes up $1 per share) and they are the best way to give our employees a true stake in the company’s future success. And, we want our employees to be rewarded by the company’s success in the same way that our public shareholders are: through stock appreciation. To lead the way, the Executive Team has agreed to forfeit their current and future cash bonus plans in exchange for more stock options.As you know, we repriced all stock options to $13.25 on July 11th. In addition, I am pleased to announce that on August 5th our Board approved new stock option grants totaling six million shares at the price of $19.75. Those receiving these new grants will get the good news later this week.Apple has granted stock options for over 10 million shares since the beginning of this calendar year, and employees now hold stock options for over 20 million shares - which is more than 16% of Apple’s total outstanding shares. This is a very high percentage for a company of Apple’s size, and comparable to many valley start-ups. As we restore Apple’s fortunes, our public shareholders and our employee stock option holders will all benefit in harmony.
  2. New Severance Plan: Effective today, we are changing our severance plan for all employees to be more in line with an entrepreneurial company. There will now be only one severance plan for all employees. This plan, like the previous plans, will provide a 60 day notice period, with full pay and benefits. In addition, employees will be eligible to receive one additional week of severance pay for each full year of service. For example, if you have worked at the company for more than three but less than four years, you will receive your pay and benefits during the 60 day notice period plus severance payments equal to three weeks of pay. This new severance plan applies to all employees of Apple, Claris, and Newton in the US - there is no longer a separate executive severance plan.We will be changing our international severance policies to be in line with this new plan to the extent permitted under local laws.
  3. Sabbatical Program: Apple needs all hands on deck for the foreseeable future as we turn our company’s fortunes around. We are therefore discontinuing the sabbatical program at the end of our current fiscal year. Employees who have earned their sabbatical as of September 26, 1997, will be eligible to take their sabbatical at a mutually agreeable time during fiscal year 1998. This applies to all employees of Apple, Claris, and Newton worldwide.
  4. Corporate Travel: Corporate travel will continue to be constrained to essential trips. Our egalitarian travel policy specifies coach class travel for everyone on trips lasting less than 10 hours, and business class travel for everyone on trips of 10 hours or longer. Of course individuals may use their personal funds or mileage awards to upgrade their seating class. For clarification, flights between San Francisco and Tokyo (either direction) are eligible for business class travel.
  5. Facilities: We will continue to move as many employees as possible onto our R&D Campus site. We will greatly benefit by the resulting “beehive” effects, including faster communication paths and more unplanned interactions between the various groups. Reflecting this consolidation, we are renaming the R&D Campus to the Apple Campus, beginning today.Thank you for your support as we work together to renew Apple.

Steve and the Executive Team

For more, I highly encourage you to order Make Something Wonderful and read the entire book yourself.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion, Public.com, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Dec 10, 2023

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